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Saturday, November 3, 2012

The Billionaires Initiative Process

Posted by on Sat, Nov 3, 2012 at 11:18 AM

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.


Comments (30) RSS

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Jerry Brown vetoed a bill in August that would have banned paying canvassers by signature.…
Posted by z(oo)mm on November 3, 2012 at 11:26 AM · Report this
Pope Peabrain 2
And can revolution be far behind? Off with their heads!!!
Posted by Pope Peabrain on November 3, 2012 at 11:36 AM · Report this
bleedingheartlibertarian 3
It would be better to do away with initiatives altogether.
Posted by bleedingheartlibertarian on November 3, 2012 at 11:49 AM · Report this
The supposed premise here ("real direct democracy would be great, I just want the ballot to not be limited to the initiatives sponsored by rich people") would lead to lowering signature requirements, not setting more limits on them. I suspect though, that like @3, what Goldy really wants is less direct democracy, and presenting the argument in this form is merely concern trolling.
Posted by David Wright on November 3, 2012 at 12:09 PM · Report this
Urgutha Forka 5
Why don't you just be wealthy?
Posted by Urgutha Forka on November 3, 2012 at 12:09 PM · Report this
Goldy 6

@4 That's not my premise, so please don't put words in mouth. I've never been shy about the fact that I believe the initiative process is generally a stupid and anti-deliberative way to write and pass legislation.

That said, I could accept lowering the signature threshold in exchange for effective contribution limits, if that were the political compromise necessary to achieve real reforms.

Posted by Goldy on November 3, 2012 at 12:33 PM · Report this
Rotten666 7
Hate to side with you, but you are 100% correct.
Posted by Rotten666 on November 3, 2012 at 12:34 PM · Report this
@4: Real direct democracy would be great, but lower signature thresholds wouldn't. Goldy's idea is good. Fewer initiatives, each with real support from the public, would be a major improvement over the current system.
Posted by J.R. on November 3, 2012 at 12:49 PM · Report this
I think the high-earner income tax was the last initiative to get on the ballot (2010) with mostly volunteers to gather signatures.
Posted by LMcGuff on November 3, 2012 at 12:51 PM · Report this
Goldy 10
@9 No, I-912, the anti-gasoline tax initiative in 2005, was the last to qualify with an all volunteer campaign.
Posted by Goldy on November 3, 2012 at 12:58 PM · Report this
Bauhaus I 11
Getting rid of referendums and initiatives would be a dream come true. Because really, how can something be a referendum with a 24% turnout? I object strongly to civil rights issues - issues supposedly guaranteed by federal and state constitutions - being at the mercy of voters who may or may not be informed. Remember the Briggs Initiative in the 70s? School teachers couldn't be gay? Almost as bad was the start of it all in my opinion, California's Prop 13 - which rolled back property taxes to a fraction of what they had been - ruined the state's much admired education, social system, and infrastructure and 30 years later the state is essentially bankrupt. Renters even were swayed by claims and voted for it because we were told property tax increases were the reason rents were skyrocketing. You can imagine my surprise when just three or four weeks after Prop 13 passed, I was hit with an 11% rent increase. Rent increases were so rampant in LA County Los Angeles instituted rent control measures after Prop 13 limiting rent increases to 7% annually - and you could set your watch to that letter appearing every April notifying me of a 7% rent increase. No one benefited from Prop 13 other than homeowners and landlords who thought they were being overtaxed.

Point is - the state has never really recovered from Prop 13 and I don't think it would have ever made it through an elected legislature. It was too radical and too directed for the benefit wealthy property owners.

And I'd be for eliminating the initiatives process for no other reason than to keep Tim Eyman, that boxy-headed little creep, out of the public affairs limelight.
Posted by Bauhaus I on November 3, 2012 at 1:00 PM · Report this
I thought Bezos put his money behind R-74 after it was already on the ballot, rather than funding it so it got there in the first place?
Posted by originalcinner on November 3, 2012 at 1:08 PM · Report this
orino 13
Paying signature gatherers used to be illegal in Washington, but someone sued and the law was invalidated by the courts as an infringement on free speech. : /
Posted by orino on November 3, 2012 at 1:11 PM · Report this
Sargon Bighorn 14
This is all so much bull shit Goldy and you know it. People sign to have initiatives and referendum placed on ballots. They are not paid to sign. People Choose to sign, no money needed to make a choice. Signature gatherers might be paid, the printers of the forms might be paid, and the messages on the media might be paid for, but not ONE of those things will happen unless NON-paid citizens FREELY choose to sign. Like others have said the real solution is to let elected law makers make law, not the unelected citizens.
Posted by Sargon Bighorn on November 3, 2012 at 1:20 PM · Report this
> 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.

Surely this gets the polarity of R-74 wrong. R-74 is on the ballot because a bunch of people opposed to the same-sex marriage law circulated petitions to force a vote on it. Bezos and Gates threw a bunch of money down to support its passage ... but they weren't responsible for it being on the ballot; that responsibilities lies with its opponents.
Posted by learhpa on November 3, 2012 at 1:29 PM · Report this
Occupy Seattle 16
I am all for the initiative process. Otherwise, we'd never get marijuana legalized. But I just for the life of me don't understand Tea Party Republican Kim Wyman's objection to registering paid signature gatherers. So let me get this straight. She doesn't want to encourage young Americans to vote by pre-registering them when they get their driver's license. She doesn't want the busy, procratinating, or just moved Americans to vote by having election day registration. But she is all for letting the millionaires and billionaires do whatever they fucking want to push these intiative through, withouth putting ANY checks and balances on them. She either sounds incredibly lazy, incompetent, or corrupt. Either way, unfit for Secretary of State office. Vote Kathleen Drew for Secretary of State. Kathleen will put some sanity back into the initiative process.
Posted by Occupy Seattle on November 3, 2012 at 1:40 PM · Report this
"People sign to have initiatives and referendum placed on ballots. They are not paid to sign."

Sorry but as someone who kept an eye on the 1240 petition process, I saw plenty of people being told half-truths and out and out lies about what they were signing. Sure, people SHOULD be more careful about what they sign but money talks and when you are getting paid to get signatures, you'll say anything to get it.

Goldy is right; we need some kind of structure or mechanism so that what would seem to be part of the democratic process is not taken over by wealthy people.

(What is fascinating is that these people let their money do the talking. For example, Bill Gates, who has put in $3M of his OWN money, has had nothing to say about I-1240. Oh right, it would never affect his kids so never mind.)
Posted by westello on November 3, 2012 at 1:47 PM · Report this
Gates and Bezos didn't initiate R-74- opponents of marriage equality did.
Posted by Farts Weird on November 3, 2012 at 1:51 PM · Report this
Supreme Ruler Of The Universe 19
I'm sponsoring an initiative next year that is supported by middle class techie guys.

The goal is to give tax incentives and special bonuses to women with pronounced yoga butt. These incentives will reward those in state with yoga butt, and create opportunities for those out of states sporting a yoga butt to move to Washington, especially near my apartment complex.

Initiative 323.
Yoga Butt.

Because it is time regular guys got something.

Posted by Supreme Ruler Of The Universe on November 3, 2012 at 2:14 PM · Report this
camlux 20
I hate all initiatives. It's a bad system.
Posted by camlux on November 3, 2012 at 3:11 PM · Report this
Sargon Bighorn 21
#17 WOW you quote me and STILL do not understand what I said. Amazing. You me him her they us are NOT PAID TO SIGN ANYTHING. People might be paid to try to get us to sign but I have NEVER EVER been given a penny to sign an initiative. Have you been paid to sign an initiative? That is my point which you missed. Politics is full of lies and no one is debating that.
Posted by Sargon Bighorn on November 3, 2012 at 3:16 PM · Report this
Cato the Younger Younger 22
There is nothing you can do to change it. Oh I suppose we can all camp out at Westlake Center and not take baths for a week but that only lasts until the weather gets cold and the city clears it out in a few short hours.

So just sit back and do what the daddy billionaires tell us to vote on.
Posted by Cato the Younger Younger on November 3, 2012 at 6:36 PM · Report this
King Rat 23
Man, do you not fact-check stuff here?

Bezos didn't put Referendum 74 on the ballot. NOM put it on the ballot.
Posted by King Rat on November 3, 2012 at 7:25 PM · Report this
Am I missing something here? Why not just ban paid signature gathering? If something is really important enough to be on the ballot, then surely a bunch of people will be willing to spend their own time gathering the signatures needed.
Posted by Coal Canary on November 3, 2012 at 9:13 PM · Report this
@17, unfortunately, Gates is in favor of charter schools. When Crosscut was taking Gates Foundation money, there were many articles by "journalists" touting charter schools. Now not so much, because the Gates money is gone.
Posted by sarah70 on November 4, 2012 at 12:26 AM · Report this
There is an assumption to the anti-initiative crowd that you can't possibly get enough people to devote some part of their time to help gather those signatures. And that's pretty pathetic. But it's sadly true, and a blistering critique of this state's politics.

Maybe they should accept signatures online, because Washingtonians would rather bitch on the Interwebs in futility than stand outside a Safeway for four hours a week productively.
Posted by K on November 4, 2012 at 12:33 AM · Report this
Goldy 27
@23 Man, do you read the posts? I never said that Bezos put R-74 on the ballot.

But maybe it's my bad for assuming my readers might know the difference between a referendum and an initiative by now, without me having to explicitly explain it in every goddamn post.
Posted by Goldy on November 4, 2012 at 1:10 AM · Report this
I've read your complaints about the initiative system over the years. I see the point you're trying to make about the role of money, but isn't this true of all elections. Folks running for office raise tons of money from rich people, and we're ultimately left to vote for the candidates that billionaires have chosen to invest in. If your indictment of the initiative process is correct, then it applies equally to the whole institution of electoral democracy in America.
Posted by Don't you think he looks tired? on November 4, 2012 at 10:04 AM · Report this
So now the Seattle "progressives" are against initiatives because they're too fucking lazy to get off their asses and use the tool given to them by their authentically progressive grandfathers.
Posted by Mister G on November 4, 2012 at 5:47 PM · Report this
SchmuckyTheCat 30
You lose any argument citing special interests. Everybody has a special interest. There isn't anything negative about a special interest.

And the rest of the argument is that most political issues have rich people that take a position on different sides of the issue. Woah, newsflash. This has nothing to do with initiatives - and is much more transparent than lobbyists buying off legislators.
Posted by SchmuckyTheCat on November 5, 2012 at 12:44 PM · Report this

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