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Initiative Voting Spreads

From the Los Angeles Times, June 6, 1976

 Initiative Voting Spreads

By Neal Peirce

 Los Angeles. – The initiative form of people’s law writing, praised by some as the purest form of democracy and damned by others as the devil’s handiwork, receives an acid test Tuesday as California voters decide on a controversial nuclear power plant initiative.

The California vote takes on national significance because it is only the tip of the iceberg of a carefully orchestrated movement to place nuclear safeguard initiatives on the ballots of all 21 states where initiatives are authorized.

The movement points up a nationwide effort to expand the initiative to other states, and indeed to amend the Constitution to make initiatives possible on a. national scale. Under initiatives, citizen signatures on petitions can force a. popular vote on a proposed law or constitutional change.

Nuclear safety Initiatives similar to the California measure have already qualified for the ballot in Colorado and Oregon in November. Active campaigns to qualify such measures by fall are also underway in eight other states— Arizona, Michigan, Missouri,. Montana, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma and Washington.

Chief sponsors of the nuclear initiatives—the Ralph Nader organization and the People’s Lobby in California—warn of catastrophic meltdowns of nuclear reactors, spewing radioactive material that contaminates and kills. Govern­ment and the nuclear industry, they allege, have tried to hide the immense risks. The time has come, they argue, for the public to take the issue Into Its own hands.

Nuclear proponents, including government, labor and utilities, say there has been no “major” accident at any atomic power plant, and sophisticated safety systems guard against accidents. Prohibitive safeguard costs required by the California initiative, they say, would even cause shutdowns of existing nuclear power plants vital to the state’s energy supply.

But is the initiative the right way to solve such issues? One public manage­ment expert, William Boyd of the National Municipal League, thinks not: “Is it really wise for the voters to have hideously technical subjects, that have emotional overtones, put before them ?“ The average voter, Boyd adds, gives relatively little thought to the issues involved and listens only to the propaganda.

The very idea of popular initiatives—whether technical or not—has been controversial since the first initiative laws were passed, around the turn of the century. They have always been most popular in the West—Oregon, Washing. ton, arid preeminently California. Hiram Johnson, the illustrious Progressive, campaigned to break the Southern Pacific’s corrupt stranglehold on California government and wrote the Initiative, along with popular referenda on laws and recall of officials, Into the state constitution in 1911.

By 1974, 157 initiatives had been submitted to California voters—44 of them approved. The subject matter has been of infinite variety: prohibition, prize fighting, compulsory vaccination, the “Ham & Eggs” pension plan of the 30s; “right to work” in the ‘50s; fair housing, pay television and anti-obscenity measures in the 1960s.

Ronald Reagan’s cherished plan to restrain all future budget and tax in. creases went down in 1973. But two important initiatives did pass in 1972 and 1974—California’s coastal protection plan and sweeping controls on campaign spending and lobbies.

Critics charge that initiatives undercut representative government by taking lawmaking responsibility out of the hands of legislators elected to do that job. Lawmakers are encouraged to pass the buck on controversial issues. Through emotional and misleading advertising, well-heeled special interest groups can hoodwink a naive electorate. Initiatives leave no room for the give and take of legislative debate, for compromise that can result in more work­able laws.

Advocates of the initiative turn all the same arguments around. The people must have a check on lobby-dominated legislatures, they say, a “safety valve” when legislators ignore the public will. The mere threat of an initiative often makes a legislature more responsive and accountable. Citizens can write laws directly, free of the threat of crippling legislative amendments. initiative campaigns, backers say, air critical issues and arouse voter interest in government.

Pros and cons aside, the initiative process is now getting a major boost on a state and national basis. Ralph Nader’s organization has taken up the cause. In Nader’s words, “The revival of the initiative, referendum and recall In states which provide for them and the passage of similar measures In other states would reduce citizen apathy and quicken Involvement in public policy. It would be the restoration of excessive delegation of power from the people back to the people — American style.”

A second group — self-appointed and astoundingly zealous — is California’s People’s Lobby, which has gone national as the “Western Bloc” to push nuclear safety initiatives. The long-term goal: to win authority for initiatives and recalls in the 29 states that don’t now have them, and to amend the U.S. Constitution to permit nationwide initiatives and recall votes of Presidents and members of Congress.

The California People’s Lobby dates back to the late 1960s, when Ed and Joyce Koupal set up their initiative “petition factory,” headquartered in their Los Angeles home. The first victory came in 1974 when they joined with Com­mon Cause to qualify California’s broad political reform initiative for the ballot—and won.

Ed Koupal died of cancer last March. Joyce Koupal is carrying on time Peoples Lobby/Western Bloc push for a national Initiative. The Nader organi­zation lends more significant muscle. Regardless of who campaigns for the initiative concept, they seem likely to pick up more followers arid more sup­port—simply because of the crescendo of public distrust of government and of elected leaders documented in every national opinion pci1.

Time movement parallels efforts in the Progressive era of the first two decades of this century, when corruption, chicanery and unsavory lobbying discredited legislatures. Reformers seized on the initiatives and referendum— a theory of “every man his own legislature” — to correct the evils. In a few years, the Progressive movement had spent itself—but left reform statutes on the law books from coast to coast.

Today’s movement may leave its mark, too. A national initiative amendment would be exceedingly difficult to write Into the Constitution. But more states may adopt the initiative, and politicians can brace themselves for a disquieting era of the people taking lawmaking into their own bands.