Break the grip of wealthy interests controlling California's ballot measure system

By Daniel G. Newman, Op-Ed
San Jose Mercury News, November 7th, 2012

California voters gained the power to place measures on the ballot a century ago to break the grip of wealthy interests controlling government. Initially, the requirement to gather large number of petition signatures ensured that only measures with broad popular support would make it to the ballot.

Now paid signature gatherers qualify any measure, for a price. It's largely wealthy companies and rich individuals who wrote the 11 state measures Californians voted on Tuesday.

Do you have $1 million to spare? No? Then your money didn't matter much in the ballot measure campaigns. There were just 47 funders who spent $1 million or more on the campaigns, but their funds made up a whopping 80 percent of all funds raised.

Three common-sense changes to California's ballot measure system would make citizens' voices count more and big bank accounts count less.

First, television ads should display the top three funders on the lower third of the screen, in plain white type on a black background, for the entire length of the ad. All other political advertising should prominently display the top three funders of the ad as well. The ads should show the original source of the funds, not innocuously named front groups for money laundering.

Campaign advertisements are often biased and misleading, but the financial supporters of measures are facts. Requiring prominent transparency in advertising will help voters evaluate the credibility of the messenger as well as the message, decreasing the influence of those seeking to buy a law.

The California Disclose Act, which included some of these transparency provisions, was narrowly defeated in the Assembly earlier this year. In the wake of the $372 million contributed to California ballot measures to date, including scandalous anonymous donations, a stronger version of the Disclose Act will return to Sacramento with more strength and citizen support.

Second, we should not allow paid signature gatherers to be paid by the signature, and petitions should prominently display whether they are being circulated for pay or by volunteers. These changes would keep voters informed about the monied influence behind a potential measure, and make it harder for wealthy interest groups to qualify ballot measures that lack genuine public support.

Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed a bill last year that would have prevented signature gatherers from being paid by the signature, but with increasing citizen disgust at money-dominated politics this measure is ripe to return.

Third, the five-month window to gather signatures is simply too short to qualify ballot measures using all volunteers. Increasing this window to one year would make it possible for ballot measures with broad popular support to qualify for the ballot using all-volunteer signature campaigns. This change would open up a window for citizen ballot measures -- measures backed by popular support, popular concern or popular desire to see change in our state.

With these three changes, big checkbooks would still speak loudly on the ballot but the collective voices of citizens would be speaking as well.

Daniel G. Newman is the co-founder and president of MapLight and is a 2011-13 network fellow at the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University. He wrote this article for this newspaper.

See the article on San Jose Mercury News website

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