As I've been arguing since I stumbled into this wretched realm of politics nine years ago, so-called "direct democracy" is neither all that direct nor democratic:
The signature-gathering needed to place measures on the California ballot is never pretty, but this year a surprising number of initiatives have qualified simply because someone wealthy has decided that it shall be so. The 11 measures on the ballot have between them attracted $350m, according to Maplight, a watchdog.
Actually, there's nothing surprising about it. Every single measure on this year's Washington's ballot is there because wealthy individuals or special interests decided to put it there, from the billionaire-backed I-1240 (charter schools) to the oil industry-funded I-1185 (Tim Eyman's odious two-thirds supermajority for tax increases). Even seemingly grassroots efforts like I-502 (marijuana legalization) and R-74 (same-sex marriage) are overwhelmingly funded by wealthy individuals, the former by over $2 million from Progressive Insurance chairman Peter Lewis, and the latter backstopped by over $3 million from local billionaires Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates alone.
Sure, we all get to vote on these ballot measures, but generally, we only get to vote on those measures the very wealthy want us to vote on. And if there isn't another wealthy individual or special interest funding the message on the other side, these billionaire-backed initiatives almost always pass.
That's not democracy. Or at least, longterm, not a functional one.
So, what to do? The courts have already ruled that money deserves more free speech protections than actual speech, so there's nothing we can do to limit spending on messaging. But I'm not sure that anybody has ever tried to impose campaign contribution limits solely on the signature gathering phase of the campaign, thus limiting the ability of wealthy individuals and special interests to buy their way onto the ballot without at least a modicum of grassroots support.
I don't know if such a limit could be crafted to pass constitutional muster, but it's worth a try. Because if our "citizens initiative process" is allowed to become the sole plaything of billionaires, it means the rest of us aren't really full citizens at all.