When California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger ventured from his office in the state capitol to attend a rally at a local Costco store one day in late March, he was mobbed by the public and the media. The event, which was broadcast widely, had all the trappings of a Schwarzenegger campaign stop. The governor wasn't looking for votes, though. He was looking for signatures.
The tactic was part of Schwarzenegger's plan to "go to the people" to enact policies that the legislature won't. Up to that point, leading Democrats in the Assembly and Senate had balked at passing the governor's proposal to reform workers' compensation. So Schwarzenegger, clipboard in hand, maneuvered among surprised shoppers, asking for support to put his plan directly to voters on the November ballot. The grandstanding worked. Three weeks later, apparently out of fear of the ballot initiative, the legislature passed his reform package with only six dissenting votes.
Call it celebrity governance. By capitalizing on his notoriety and self-proclaimed mandate to "clean house in Sacramento," Schwarzenegger has repeatedly wielded the ballot initiative as if it were another tool of executive power right alongside the veto and the proclamation. In doing so, he has helped expand that much-maligned Progressive-Era reform -- and threatened to further politicize the policymaking process. His tactics marginalize legislators and further empower the already dominant executive branch. What's more, they reinforce the idea that state government has become irrevocably dysfunctional. The result has been to upset the careful balance between popular and legislative will.
Schwarzenegger isn't alone in using the ballot initiative to govern. Officials in Virginia, Alabama, Colorado and Massachusetts have done much the same -- without the high-profile coverage. All have cast themselves as outsiders butting heads with a dysfunctional political system.
"One of the striking things about [these initiatives]," said Shaun Bowler, a professor of political science at the University of California at Riverside, "is how they are all intensely critical of government." In a sense, they are an assault on state capitols by the people working inside them.
Schwarzenegger made direct democracy a key theme of his recall campaign last year. He has repeatedly threatened to take any issue -- from tax reform to a balanced budget to access to driver's licenses -- to the ballot if the legislature refuses to cooperate.
Similarly, in Massachusetts in 2000, then-Gov. Paul Cellucci, a Republican, launched an initiative drive to pass the largest tax cut in the state's history after the legislature wouldn't.
Wielding populist rhetoric, Cellucci drove the ballot initiative to a 12-point victory. In 2002, Virginia Gov. Mark Warner succeeded in getting proposed regional sales tax increases onto the ballot in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads. The measures, which failed, would have addressed a deepening transportation crisis that Warner said the legislature had consistently ignored.
While politicians love the ballot initiative for its anti-establishment gloss, the tactic of deploying direct democracy is appealing for other reasons. For one, it allows elected officials to end a policy game with one big swing. Initiatives, for the most part, can be drawn up free of legislative meddling.
With no compromises to water down a proposal, sweeping reforms are possible. Earlier in the year, for instance, Schwarzenegger threatened to submit a $100 billion budget to a vote of the people. The problem is, crafting big ideas without legislative input can have unintended consequences, not the least of which is losing out on the vetting that might help ensure a measure is constitutional. That's what happened to California's Proposition 187, a bold plan to cut off state services to illegal immigrants that was later declared unconstitutional; while not engineered by then-Gov. Pete Wilson , he adopted it to try to resuscitate a moribund reelection campaign.
Other officials have used the initiative as a weapon to force reform in their own parties.
Last year, Republican Gov. Bob Riley of Alabama pushed for a massive tax increase to shift the revenue burden from the poor to the rich, an idea Riley premised on "the Christian duty" to care for the less fortunate. His proselytizing seemed to give life to the measure. (In the end, though, it was soundly defeated.)
While the state's constitution mandated that any such plan go before the voters, Riley's personal backing of the proposal gave it a Nixon-goes-to-China kind of symbolism: In Alabama, only a conservative Republican could credibly lobby for a tax increase.
In Colorado, meanwhile, Republican Rep. Tom Tancredo has sponsored an initiative -- currently in the signature-gathering phase -- to demand that all residents show proof of citizenship to receive state services. The measure has unsettled a state GOP wary of offending the growing Latino electorate; Tancredo is pushing the initiative in part because he believes other Republicans have grown too timid about illegal immigration.
There is another lure. Ballot initiatives can quickly build an official's political capital. And the intense statewide campaign needed to pass a proposition mimics the retail politics that most governors have mastered. Shortly after taking office, Schwarzenegger began lobbying for his economic recovery plan, which took the form of two initiatives on the March primary ballot. As the vote neared, the campaign essentially became a continuation of the governor's recall campaign, complete with TV ads, direct mail and massive rallies. In the end he needed bipartisan political support to pass the measures, which were trailing badly in the polls until the governor sought the endorsement of Sen. Dianne Feinstein and other prominent Democrats, but the media mostly ignored this, declaring that with the victory, Schwarzenegger had won "a resounding vote of confidence." He then parlayed that success into his winning push for workers' compensation reform.
Schwarzenegger's ability to use initiatives -- or at least the threat of them -- has done as much as anything to cement his power in California. For other politicians, the initiative provides a way "to stay in the public mind and to raise name recognition" between elections, according to Dan Smith, a professor of political science at the University of Florida.
Of course, politicians have long piggybacked on the initiative process to advance their political careers. But in the past, the initiatives were most often already underway before a governor made them a cause celebre. What Schwarzenegger and others have done, by contrast, is to plan, author and then campaign for these measures from the very beginning. At least in California, it is a power that previous governors have tried and failed to wield. Both Ronald Reagan in 1973 and Pete Wilson in 1992 initiated policy reforms at the ballot that were soundly defeated. Yet Schwarzenegger has made direct democracy a cornerstone of his governance.
Ballot initiatives -- whoever their sponsors -- have been criticized for their million-dollar price tags, for clogging up the ballots and for letting "special interests" buy legislation. But one person's special interest is another's favorite advocacy organization. The groups that have tended to spearhead ballot initiatives -- whether the education lobby or the Sierra Club or an energy company -- have sizable constituencies. And however much the process may be corrupted by money, the idea of letting interest groups petition the voters directly is firmly in keeping with the Progressive tradition. This new, tactical use of the initiative, by contrast, dissociates the initiative from its citizen roots. It expands the power of the already powerful. It sanctions the views not of the masses, but of one official.
State constitutions, like the federal one, were designed to force the executive to work through the other branches of government. This safeguard slows the policymaking process and also ensures its moderation. Now, as polarization deepens and divided government becomes the norm, governors are bypassing that check. But the executive is supposed to implement laws, not write them. To set policy through governor-directed referendums is to concentrate power unwisely in the hands of a public majority.
The initiative tactic also marginalizes state legislatures. Sequestered in increasingly safe districts, legislators are more often than not free to vote according to genuine conviction rather than the demands of popular whim. But governing through initiatives removes local representation from the process. Worse, it reinforces the idea that legislatures have become dysfunctional, unresponsive and corrupt. In many states, legislatures have consistently lower public approval ratings than the governor. And the more governors decide to go over the heads of representatives in making policy, the more public confidence in them erodes -- and the more impotent local officials become.
Finally, the new emphasis on governing through the ballot box further politicizes policy decisions. As in California, every initiative battle becomes a proxy vote of confidence in the governor. In this age of voter cynicism, governors such as Schwarzenegger were elected to fix a broken political process. Ironically, in governing through the ballot box, they have made that task all the more difficult. If these officials really want to reform the political establishment, the last thing they should be doing is bypassing it.
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