The principle that power will prevail over law until the law generates the citizen power to prevail over the special interests’ power came true in California’s recent election where four progressive referenda were defeated by the voters.
Four initiatives (or referenda) to advance the environment, preserve virgin forests, reform campaign finance and place a tax on alcohol failed. All four were way ahead in the polls until the final weeks of the election on November 6th.
What went wrong? In a brilliant six page analysis, Harvey Rosenfield, gives the reasons for these defeats.
First, these initiatives were not self-financing from the polluters, timber companies and other subjects of their reform; they cost the taxpayers money even though in some cases the amounts were trivial costs of administration. This window of vulnerability allowed opponents to balloon the tax increase accusation into widespread television ads which supporters had no money to rebut.
Second, two of the initiatives — the environmental and the campaign finance reform — were mainly funded and sponsored by two elected politicians. The election campaign of one — Attorney General John Van de Kamp running for Governor — and the ambitions of another for the office of environmental advocate contained in the initiative — Tom Hayden — got in the way of the merits of these reforms.
Third, the proponents of these initiatives did not mount strong grassroots campaigns based on a persuasive message. When you do not have a multi-million dollar advertising budget, as did the liquor, timber, pesticide, petrochemical and other industries, a grass-roots door to door, news producing campaign is essential.
Four, corporate interests have devised a new strategy against reform initiatives called the counterattack initiative. On the same ballot this year was an initiative sponsored by the liquor companies masquerading as reform, one by the timber industry and the agricultural chemicals industry also presuming to be for the public good. The latter in fact, though not in image, actually weakened existing California environmental laws.
The attack initiative function is to deceive, then confuse, then fatigue the voters. And of course, the big money to do just that is on the side of these counter‑ initiatives. When voters are confused as to the merits of competing initiatives, they tend to vote NO to both.
The one reform initiative which did win was Prop. 140 which limited the terms of California legislators to a total of six years and which cut the budget of the state legislature. No tax increases, no fiscal impact except to save money.
Enough voters to make the difference make judgments on this basic perception even though these measures would have saved their health, their citizen rights to cleaner government and the dwindling natural heritage of the magnificent redwoods. This narrowness of voter focus is encouraged by the narrowness of the 30 second media spots.
For good laws to overcome bad power, there is no substitute for good initiative strategies that include empowerment of citizens along with needed change, and massive people-to-people contact and discussions. As Rosenfield said: “relying on professional, paid, signature-gathering companies is not only twice as expensive as developing an in-house signature-gathering corps, but it also eliminates one of the great benefits of an in-house operation: the development of a seasoned, grassroots campaign staff.”