Californians ponder whether there can be such a thing as too much democracy


LOS ANGELES -- The ballot-initiative process, whereby California voters can place any issue they choose before the electorate by gathering enough qualified signatures, is in a state of chaos.

A number of issues decided by direct-vote initiative -- from ending affirmative action as public policy and denying public schooling to illegal-immigrant children, to insurance and campaign reform -- remain ensnarled in the courts over their constitutionality or other challenges.

Both major political parties are calling on the courts to throw out a newly passed initiative ending closed-party primary elections in favor of an open system wherein voters regardless of party can cast their ballots for candidates of the other party.

The initiative process itself remains widely popular, however, not only among voters but among large corporations and other special interests that have learned to use it as a means of obtaining laws they can't lobby successfully through the state -- legislature. They spend millions in every election cycle to end-run Sacramento and go directly to the voters.

A survivor of the old progressive era of Hiram Johnson, the initiative has become an effective tool in the hands of some of the most conservative political forces in the state. Frustrated good-government groups set out last week to reclaim it as a vehicle for their own objectives.

Under the leadership of the consumer advocate Ralph Nader and his representative in California, Harvey Rosenfield, a new effort called ''The Oak Project'' was launched in three locations in the Los Angeles area to train a 1,000 volunteers to use the initiative as a basic tool of empowering democracy to bring about change.


The schedule called for teach-ins by Mr. Nader in Pasadena, West Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley on how the initiative process works, starting with petition-gathering. California law prescribes the number of signatures of qualified voters, determined by the last election for governor, to place any question on the ballot as a numbered ''proposition.''

An industry of professional initiative managers has grown up, paying workers as much as $4 a signature to qualify issues for the ballot and conducting costly advertising campaigns for or against certain initiatives.

The new project seeks to build a cadre of volunteer petition-gatherers that at little cost will be able to counter the work of these paid operatives. Bill Gallagher, a Rosenfield associate, says the idea is to persuade consumers, taxpayers, workers, minority stockholders and average voters that the means are available to advance their own interests through the system.

The effort is an outgrowth of an existing network of public-interest organizations in California whose volunteer members address such concerns as health-care abuses, overbilling by public utilities and the like.

Tobacco initiative

The initiative process itself, Mr. Gallagher charges, has been widely abused, by well-financed organizers misrepresenting what their proposals would do. He cites an initiative by the tobacco industry in 1994 that claimed its purpose was to keep cigarettes out of the hands of children, when it actually sought to impose statewide laws on tobacco use to supersede often more restrictive laws at the local level.

For all the abuses in the initiative system, however, even those who complain that it has been bought by powerful industries and special interests say they wouldn't want to see it removed from the political scene in California. It can remain an effective democratic tool, they say, if properly and consistently used by grass-roots voters.

As in campaign-finance reform, critics of the ballot-initiative abuses look to public disclosure of the sponsors and costs of petition-gathering and media advertising, as a partial remedy. LTC But their best hope to compete may be doing a better job themselves using a democratic tool that isn't likely to be removed from California politics any time soon.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 3/10/97

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