In 2020, there are 12 statewide ballot initiatives in California that all citizens may vote on. These initiatives are high-stakes issues that would impact multiple distinct realms of social life. Propositions cover topics such as the gig work economy, the criminal justice system, and the affirmative action policy. The issue that citizens of California are facing is the lack of innate education or ability to decipher the wording of legal propositions. To cast an educated vote on any of these initiatives, a voter must have at least perfunctory knowledge of each issue and social realm.
As citizens of voting age throughout the United States participate in the election, many voters in California are questioning the justice of direct democracy. Direct democracy is the system of democracy that enables every citizen to vote directly on policies and propositions. Most states in this country follow the model of a representative democracy, where citizens elect representatives to vote on policies and propositions. The federal government is also a representative democracy, as we elect officials to represent districts and states within the Senate and the House of Representatives. Representative democracy has its own issues to be questioned, such as the potential for disconnect between the popular vote and the representative vote. This was exemplified in the results of both the 2000 and 2016 presidential elections, within which the Democratic candidate won the popular vote, but the Republican candidate was elected into office after winning the representative vote.
The problems experienced in California stem from the fact that power and money influence distribution of information and resources. In a capitalist society, corporate wealth has the ability to influence the workings of democracy. For example, California’s Proposition 22, a measure proposed to exempt app-based transportation and delivery companies from providing employment benefits to drivers, was denied by elected representatives who are familiar with state labor laws and well-educated in making decisions regarding employment regulations. For those who fully understood what the proposition was about, there was no question about denying it. However, within the system of a direct democracy, the companies that Prop 22 would negatively affect by requiring more rights for workers (namely: Uber, Lyft, and DoorDash) were able to put the proposition on the ballot for citizens to vote on. This body of corporations is then able to spend gross amounts of money campaigning for the passing of Proposition 22, against the decision of the elected representatives. Average citizens can become easily overwhelmed by the inundation of information that is funded by the “Yes on 22” campaign, especially compared with the efforts of local organizations to protest the proposition on factual measures.
Now, consider that there are at least 11 more ballot initiatives for every Californian to vote on, and each connects to an extremely important decision about society and life as we know it. The amount of overwhelming confusion that many Californians are experiencing is not conducive to a productive democracy. The legal language of the propositions is purposefully obfuscating to citizens, meaning that the most well-funded campaigns will be the most effective in reaching voters. Within this capitalist society, direct democracy becomes less about citizens coming to their own conclusions, and more about catching voters' attention with obscenely well-funded campaigns. There are arguments in favor of both representative and direct democracy, and each system has its faults and its strengths, especially within the varying contexts of democracy in the U.S.
Glossary of CA Ballot Initiatives
Proposition 14: Stem cell research funding
Proposition 15: Property tax "split roll" for commercial real estate
Proposition 16: Repealing the ban on affirmative action
Proposition 17: Voting rights for felons on parole
Proposition 18: Allow some 17-year-olds to vote in primaries
Proposition 19: Property tax transfers and inheritances
Proposition 20: Recategorize criminal sentencing charges
Proposition 22: Job classification for app-based drivers
Proposition 23: Physicians onsite at dialysis clinics
Proposition 24: Add new consumer privacy rules