Why I hate ballot initiatives

October 25, 2013: 1:04 PM ET

San Francisco real estate spat to be put before voters who have no knowledge, expertise, or even opinions about it.

By Adam Lashinsky, senior editor-at-large

130301112334-best-sellers-market-san-francisco-california-620xaFORTUNE -- The Wall Street Journal gave some national exposure Wednesday to a tempest-in-a-teapot issue that has been percolating in San Francisco for a while now. A local developer wants to knock over a private swim-and-tennis club to build a 12-story residential building. Neighbors -- including the real estate giant Boston Properties (BXP), Fortune's landlord in San Francisco -- are miffed that the building will spoil their views. (My view already is spoiled by another building that's in the way.) The matter will be put before voters in dueling ballot initiatives in November.

This nothing of a local debate perfectly encapsulates why the ballot initiative process is a pathetic sham. This is undoubtedly true around the country, but especially so in California, where any idiot who can collect some signatures can pervert the will of the people by then spending a boatload of money to confuse them. In short, ballot initiatives, propositions in Calfornia-ese, add to this state's laughingstock status when it comes to governance.

The ballot initiative in California dates back to the Progressive Era in the early 20th century, when well-meaning advocates believed the only way to break the grip of the oligarchs that ran the state was to go directly to the people. It worked pretty well. The system first began to run off the rails in the 1970s, when a Southern California huckster named Howard Jarvis passed Proposition 13, which made it near impossible to raise local property taxes -- and gutted primary education in the state for a generation.

MORE: Moving East to California

Fast-forward to today, when voters are asked to pass judgment on scores of issues in each election cycle about which they have no knowledge, expertise, or even opinions. The battle described in the Journal, over the real estate project called 8 Washington (its address), is a perfect example. I have no strong feeling one way or another about this specific project, except that it went through the entire tortuous planning process, including approval by San Francisco's legislative body -- which is how it's supposed to work in a representative democracy -- and is now being contested in competing propositions on the November ballot.

Let's be clear. This isn't about democracy. The founders never intended for us to have direct democracy. Complicated matters like housing projects are the work of professional bureaucrats and politicians who oversee them. Their process includes opportunities for the public to weigh in. It's the normal give and take.

Instead, despite this project having gone through all the necessary fights, the warring parties are dumping more than $2 million down the drain on this, money that could have been better spent in any number of ways: to spruce up San Francisco General Hospital, improve San Francisco's schools, beautify the parks. Instead we get junk mail and TV commercials. As an aside, it will be very interesting to hear from Boston Properties the next time it has a project approved by the government bodies in San Francisco, only to be opposed on a bought-and-paid-for ballot in front of voters. It undoubtedly will have gotten what it had coming.

From time to time I present my thesis on ballot initiatives to the rich people I know who support them. (I wrote this article a few years ago about two rich San Franciscans involved in a ballot battle.) I ask why they continue to support the maneuvers even though they plainly are such bad governance. They typically say they trust legislators even less than the people, and they don't want to give up their ability to effect the kind of change they think is good.

It's enough to make someone cynical.

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About This Author
Adam Lashinsky
Adam Lashinsky
Senior Editor at Large, Fortune

Adam Lashinsky is a San Francisco-based editor-at-large for FORTUNE, covering Wall Street and Silicon Valley. Lashinsky joined FORTUNE in 2001, after two years as a contributing columnist. Prior to joining FORTUNE, Lashinsky covered Silicon Valley for TheStreet.com and The San Jose Mercury News. A Chicago native, Lashinsky holds a B.A. in history and political science from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

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