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Walters: California Tests Populist Vision of ‘Direct Democracy’



The next 15 months will be an especially busy test of California's commitment to "direct democracy," says Dan Walters. (Shutterstock)
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California’s great reformer, former Gov. Hiram Johnson, envisioned that “direct democracy” would be an effective curb on special interest influence.

At the time, more than a century ago, the Southern Pacific Railroad dominated a corrupt state Legislature and other political venues. Johnson wanted voters empowered to circumvent such dominance via initiative (legislating by ballot measure), referendum (repealing laws passed by the Legislature) and recall (ousting politicians deemed ineffective or corrupt).

The next 15 months will be an especially busy test of Johnson’s direct democracy.

A recall directed at Gov. Gavin Newsom, once a longshot, now appears to have a fair chance of succeeding. Mail voting will begin in a couple of weeks and Newsom and his Democratic Party are obviously worried that low turnout of pro-Newsom voters could be fatal to his political career.

Looking ahead to the general election in November 2022, voters will face at least one referendum and three initiatives that are drawing both support and opposition from moneyed interests — a scenario far different than Johnson’s populist vision.

Medical Malpractice Lawsuits and MICRA

Dan Walters


The referendum, backed by the tobacco industry, would torpedo Senate Bill 793, a 2020 measure signed by Newsom that bans flavored tobacco products. SB 793 backers contended that it was needed because “Fueled by kid friendly flavors like cotton candy and bubblegum, 3.6 million more middle and high school students started using e-cigarettes in 2018.”

One initiative is the latest skirmish in a 46-year battle over legislation signed by Jerry Brown in 1975, his first year as governor, that limits “pain and suffering” damages in medical malpractice lawsuits to $250,000.

Medical care providers and their insurers backed the law, known as MICRA, to curb what they said were outlandish damage awards that were making medical services financially untenable.

Ever since, personal injury lawyers and their allies have tried, both in the Legislature and via the ballot, to modify or repeal MICRA, but have repeatedly failed. The 2022 initiative would keep MICRA on the books, but make its limit virtually meaningless.

Keeping Manufacturers Accountable for Reducing Plastic Waste

A second initiative is another skirmish in a years-long battle, this one between environmental groups and the plastics industry over responsibility for waste. The former have often prevailed in the legislative arena and at the ballot. Their new measure would directly impose the burden for reducing plastic waste on manufacturers.

Proponents have already raised several million dollars to pass the measure, but while the American Chemistry Council opposes it, no formal campaign against it has been announced.

Expanding Legal Gambling into Sports Betting

The third initiative promises to be the most expensive because it will determine control of what could be a multi-billion-dollar expansion of legal gambling into sporting events.

Sponsored by a coalition of Indian tribes that already have a monopoly on slot machines and other forms of casino gambling, the new measure would give them and a few horse racing tracks a similar monopoly on sports wagering, which is now illegal.

The tribal ballot measure climaxes years of wrangling in the Legislature over the legalization of sports betting that went nowhere.

Under the measure, such bets would have to be placed in person at the casinos or tracks and it’s likely to be opposed by on-line sports betting sites such as DraftKings and FanDuel, which have hinted they may place their own measure on the ballot.

At the moment, however, the tribes’ only formal opposition comes from poker parlors which see sports betting as new competition for Californians with a yen to gamble.

It’s theoretically possible that other measures could make the 2022 ballot, but given the signature requirements and deadlines, it’s highly unlikely that more will surface.

CalMatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters. For more stories by Dan Walters, go to

Dan Walters has been a journalist for nearly 60 years, spending all but a few of those years working for California newspapers. He has written more than 9,000 columns about the state and its politics and is the founding editor of the “California Political Almanac.” Dan has also been a frequent guest on national television news shows, commenting on California issues and policies.

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