In November 2010, the California electorate approved Proposition 26, a little-known and little-followed proposal, in a close vote.
Proposition 26 was one of those propositions written to be intentionally confusing and difficult to understand. It requires a two-thirds majority to approve certain fees instead of a normal majority. Most people probably thought of these fees as something like sales taxes or property taxes. In fact, the fees generally constitute taxes on business activities which harm society, such as alcohol retailers or businesses that use hazardous waste. In other words, most people thought of Proposition 26 as involving tax cuts, when in reality it’s about environmental regulation.
Proposition 26 has also added several billion dollars to the state budget deficit, something that an informed voter could only know by digging deep into the legislative analysis (the relevant text is at the end of the third-to-last paragraph). It constitutes one of those complex matters which should have been decided by the legislature, not the ballot box.
There is one final problem with Proposition 26 and with the proposition system generally. 52.5% of Californians voted for Proposition 26, while 47.5% voted against. Proposition 26 requires a 67% supermajority to pass certain fees. In other words, a bare majority of voters – half of whom probably had no idea what they were even voting for – was able to require 67% legislative approval for a policy to be enacted.
This is not just bad policy, it is rather undemocratic. 52.5% of voters should not be able to create a 67% supermajority requirement. A 67% supermajority requirement ought to require 67% approval of voters, not 50.1% – which is the current system in California.
In the 2008 presidential election 52.9% of Americans voted for President Barack Obama. Say, for instance, that those 52.9% of Americans also amended the constitution to require 67% of Americans to vote against Obama for him to lose re-election. Everybody would call that an undemocratic violation of American principles. Yet that is effectively how California’s proposition system currently works.
Here is a proposed reform: the next proposition that creates a supermajority requirement will need supermajority approval as well. 50.1% of Californians should not be able to set a 67% bar for policies to pass. It is practically impossible to get two-thirds legislative support in any Western democracy. Changing the law to create such a barrier should be just as difficult as well.