is it just me, or is the entire california political system in dire need of a sweeping overhaul? let me get this straight: in california, it takes a 2/3 majority to pass a state budget (and address a financial crisis), but it only takes a simple majority to amend the california constitution? in my humble opinion, this is bass ackwards! california can pass an amendment to the state constitution that takes away the civil rights of its citizens with a simple majority, but can’t address a financial crisis because the state legislature requires a 2/3 majority to pass a budget?
compare california’s backwards system to the u.s. federal government, which requires a simple majority to pass a law, a budget, or a $700 billion dollar bailout, but mandates a 3/4 (that’s 75% to you humanities majors) ‘super’ or ‘special majority’ of ratifying states to amend the constitution. again, with all due respect to my own state’s government, we have it all backwards.
the problem lies with california’s penchant for amending the state constitution. for sake of comparison, the u.s. constitution has 27 amendments. twenty-seven! but by 1986, the california constitution had been amended more than 460 times! likewise, the u.s. constitution has 4,400 words, shorter than any major government’s constitution in the world. and yet by 1962, the california constitution contained over 75,000 words!! and while there have been several efforts to streamline california’s constitution, it is still possible to amend it with a simple majority.
there was a reason the founders of the united states required a three-fourths super majority to amend the constitution: to guard against tinkering. and tinkering is what we’ve recently done in california. proposition 8 took advantage of the simple ‘fifty percent plus one’ majority required to amend the california state constitution to limit the civil rights of a portion of its citizens. unlike the u.s. constitution, which reserved amendments for the granting of monumental protections and freedoms to its citizens like the abolition of slavery, women’s right to vote, equal protection under the law, california has actually voted to limit the civil rights of its citizens with the passage of prop 8. i can think of only one time where the federal government amended the constitution to limit the rights of the people: the 18th amendment and prohibition. and how did that turn out? it resulted in the 21st amendment and prohibition’s repeal.
the final problem leading to california’s political quagmire is the overuse of direct ballot initiatives. ballot measures bypass the entire system of ‘representative government’ that we’ve established throughout the u.s. by opening ballot measures up directly to the public, we circumvent all three of the established branches of government – the executive, legislative, and judicial – and ask the public to vote on binding issues that supersede our own elected legislature. this places tremendous financial binds on california’s legislature, causing them to have to budget around the public’s latest prop de jour. likewise, ballot initiatives lead to increased (and unpopular) ‘legislation from the bench.’ bad ballot initiatives (and with enough signatures and money, you can get just about anything on a california ballot) cause the judiciary to step in and repeal many voter-approved ballot measures often because they are simply unconstitutional, or in the case of prop 8, counter to the purpose of the constitution, which is to limit government interference and protect and defend the rights of its citizens.
it is time for california to overhaul its political process. first, we are in dire need of a constitutional rewrite. simple is better. second, california should invert it’s majority requirements for the passage of state budgets (from 2/3 to a simple majority) and for constitutional amendments (from simple majority to 2/3 super majority). this will cut down on the use of the constitution to implement trendy proposals. finally, we need to find a way to cut down on the overuse of direct ballot initiatives, which only tie the hands of an already gridlocked state legislature. implementing these three simple reforms will go a long way towards fixing california’s problems.
robert. r. cargill, ph.d.