In theory, it is the quintessence of American democracy: citizens signing petitions to place grass-roots proposals on their election ballot. In practice, voter initiatives are provoking complaints from a growing number of skeptics.
In some states, including initiative hotbed California, activist citizens say special interest groups and politically ambitious millionaires have hijacked the process. In others, legislators who resent being circumvented are erecting ever-higher hurdles for signature-gatherers, or, as in the case of Massachusetts, simply ignoring proposals that win public approval.
“It takes a lot of money to use the process — it’s been taken out of the average voter’s hands,” said Dane Waters, executive director of the Initiative and Referendum Institute.
Last fall, four initiative campaigns in Oregon each spent more than $750,000 — only to fall short with voters. In California, a coalition of civic leaders, developers and conservancy groups expects to spend up to $7 million this year on an initiative that would take $1 billion a year from car sales and devote it to transportation and conservation projects.
Next month, voters in 38 states will decide on about 200 ballot measures, according to Waters’ Washington-based think tank. However, only 53 result from citizen petitioning; the others were put on the ballot by legislators.
The number of citizen initiatives is down from 71 in 2000 and from an all-time peak of 93 in 1996, Waters said. He attributes the drop to increased regulation of the initiative process, and to worries by advocacy groups that their proposals will be struck down on technicalities.
Citizen initiatives are allowed in 24 states. In several of them, legislators wary of ultimatums from the public have put measures on the Nov. 5 ballot that would make signature-gathering more difficult.
The National Conference of State Legislatures formed a task force to study the initiative process. Its final report, in July, was largely negative.
“The initiative has evolved from its early days as a grass-roots effort to enhance representative democracy into a tool that too often is exploited by special interests,” the report said.
“Opportunities for abuse of the process outweigh its advantages,” said the task force, advising states without an initiative process to avoid creating one.
Oregon has been the No. 1 practitioner of the initiative system, voting on more than 300 citizen-proposed measures since 1902, more than any other state. Even there, however, complaints are proliferating that initiatives rely too heavily on paid signature gatherers hired by special interests and have burdened the state with expensive, often conflicting policies.
This year, Oregon has only seven initiatives on its ballot, the fewest since 1992 and a drop from 18 two years ago.
One reason for the decline: an Oregon Supreme Court ruling two years ago that stores, shopping malls and other businesses could prohibit signature gathering on their property.
One of the initiatives on Oregon’s ballot this year would make future initiative campaigns even harder. Groups seeking to get an item onto the ballot would be prohibited from making payments on a per-signature basis to people hired to collect signatures.
Supporters of the measure say it would reduce fraud and forgery, including abuses by professional signature collectors from out of state. Critics say the measure would lead to hourly wages for signature gatherers, pushing the cost of petitioning so high that only unions or big companies could afford it.
In Oklahoma, a legislative proposal on the Nov. 5 ballot would raise the number of signatures required to get an item on the ballot relating to hunting or fishing. Constitutional amendments in Montana, also proposed by lawmakers, would make it more difficult to get initiatives on the ballot and require more signatures from rural areas.
In several states, initiative campaigns are flourishing primarily because they have wealthy patrons.
Actor Arnold Schwarzenegger, a possible future candidate for governor, has contributed $1 million to a California campaign to bolster before- and after-school programs. Rob McKay, a Taco Bell heir, is pushing a proposal to allow Election Day voting registration in California. Millionaire software developer Ron Unz is backing measures to eliminate bilingual education in Colorado and Massachusetts.
Massachusetts has become a distinctive battleground in the debate over initiatives. Its citizens are entitled to put proposals on either statewide or district ballots, but the Legislature is not obligated to implement recommendations that win approval.
Items on the Nov. 5 ballot in some legislative districts would decriminalize marijuana, halt U.S. support of Colombia’s army and oust the leader of the Massachusetts House of Representatives. But if the past is any guide, most measures that win approval will go nowhere.