by Michael A. Smith, Professor of Political Science, Emporia State University

Author’s Note 

The following passage is an excerpt from the project “Political Science Undercover” by Chapman Rackaway, Kevin Anderson, and me.  The first iteration of this project will be presented at the upcoming Midwest Political Science Association Meetings.

So…. I want you to get up now.  I want you to get up out of your chairs.  I want you to get up out of your chair, walk over to the window, open it, stick your head out and yell, ‘I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!’”

Network (1976)


This year marks the forty-fifth anniversary of California’s Proposition 13, which ushered in a new era of direct democracy in the U.S. states.  Nearly a half century later, how is it going?

A mad as hell spirit often characterizes the use of direct democracy in today’s United States. Just two years after the movie Network was released, California conservative Howard Jarvis launched the modern era of direct democracy in the United States when he discovered that California voters were mad as hell about property tax reassessments.  He also discovered an under-appreciated section of the state constitution that was over 50 years old.


The Petition Initiative Unleashed

A work of fiction, Network captured the rage of Americans whose lives seemed to be governed by things they did not understand and could not control.  Jarvis captured this mad as hell spirit in a real-world example.  He tackled a problem with which home- and landowners are all too aware: property tax reassessments, which can sucker punch taxpayers who do not recall voting for any tax increases.  When local property assessors increase the taxable value of property, the tax bill can rise—sometimes in double-digit percentages—even if there have been no increases in the tax levies.  Jarvis hitched voter anger at these “hidden” tax hikes with a section of the California constitution which allowed voters to place policy changes directly on the ballot, bypassing the state legislature.

Through the use of the petition initiative, Jarvis and his allies passed a property tax rollback known as Proposition 13.  Passed in 1978, “Prop 13” was a harbinger of America’s conservative turn, foreshadowing the election of fellow Californian Ronald Reagan to the Presidency in 1980.  Just as important, Prop 13 ushered in a new era of direct democracy in the United States.  In states that provided for the initiative, more and more policy changes are now passed as ballot measures instead of legislation.  This includes a host of topics known as hot button or (more recently) culture war issues such as abortion rights, immigration, same-sex marriage, “three strikes and you’re out” penalties for those convicted of multiple felonies, and recreational and medical marijuana.

Prop 13 inspired other tax rollbacks and capping initiatives, such as Massachusetts’ Proposition 2½ (1980) and Missouri’s Hancock Amendment (1980), both of which passed.  Like Prop 13, they are still in effect today. It also made Jarvis himself into a minor celebrity. He appeared on the cover of Time magazine and made a cameo appearance in the cult-classic comedy film Airplane! (1980). He even co-authored a book, fittingly titled I’m Mad as Hell (1979).


Direct Democracy in the States and Beyond

The use of the petition initiative is not universal.  For example, among America’s five most-heavily populated states, only California uses it fully.  Its use is commonly associated with Western states.  All states west of the continental divide use it, except Texas and Hawaii. Some states, such as Florida, limit the initiative to amendments to the state constitution.  This is how that state passed Amendment 4 in 2018, which restores the right to vote to many convicted of felonies, after they serve their sentences.  Other states such as New Mexico have a veto referendum, in which voters cannot pass laws but they can repeal laws passed by the legislature.  In the U.S. there is no provision for nationwide issue voting, as there is in many other democracies such as the UK and South Korea.  These countries utilize a different procedure also used in many U.S. states, the referendum, in which a legislature places a proposal on the ballot for voters to approve or reject.

Some states do not allow for statewide initiatives, but do use the referendum.  For example, Kansas requires referenda on proposed amendments to the state constitution.  In August, 2022, Kansas voters shocked the nation when they sided with pro-choice advocates on abortion rights, rejecting an amendment that would have allowed the Kansas Legislature to criminalize abortion.  The pro-choice side prevailed by 18 percentage points.

Overseas, an excellent example of mad as hell direct democracy occurred with the UK’s 2016 Brexit vote, in which voters narrowly approved a referendum to exit the European Union.  Analysts believe that many UK voters did not fully understand the implications of what they were voting upon, and some – particularly among the “yes” voters– treated it as a referendum on immigration.

In the U.S., the state petition initiative idea began as a backlash against political machines and business monopolies and oligopolies – particularly railroads, which dominated state legislatures with near-impunity at one time. The initiative was part of the progressive reforms of the early 20th Century, designed to wrest control of state government from these interests.  However, it wasn’t until Jarvis discovered its full potential that the initiative reached its full power, as documented by Peter Schrag in his 1998 book Paradise Lost: California’s Experience, America’s Future.

A word of caution about terminology.  For analytic purposes, political scientists often classify actions as either representative, direct, or participatory democracy.  In practice, these overlap.  For example, voting is an act of participation, as are volunteering for a political campaign, signing a petition, and donating money.  Both representative and direct democracy require these participatory acts.  Likewise, representative and direct democracy can overlap.  A case in point is former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s advocacy of redistricting reform.  Schwarzenegger made this reform the signature act of his nearly two-term governorship.  Passed on the second try, this ballot initiative removed the state General Assembly’s authority to draw the lines of new Congressional and state legislative districts and vested that power in councils of citizens.

Using his elected office to stump for this successful ballot initiative, Schwarzenegger was one of many elected officials who blurred the lines between representative and direct democracy.  Even after leaving the governorship, Schwarzenegger remains committed to making nonpartisan redistricting his political legacy, vowing to advocate for similar initiatives in other states.  A well-known celebrity, Schwarzenegger draws upon one of his best-known movie characters as he travels the country vowing to — in his words — “terminate gerrymandering.”


The Promises and Pitfalls of Initiatives and Referenda

Holding plebiscites is a tempting alternative that promises to alleviate many of the voter frustrations that often occur in the United States’ representative democracy.  For example, there is no explicit role for political parties in direct democracy.  There also appears to be no risk of a disconnect between representative and represented — voters vote directly on the changes they do, or do not wish to see.  In direct democracy, one need not worry about uncompetitive elections in which only one viable candidate appears on the ballot and the outcome is a foregone conclusion.  Instead, every ballot initiative guarantees two choices — for and against.  Plebiscites also avoid the awkward issue bundling that comes with supporting a candidate or party.  Political scientists have long known that most voters are not easily categorized.  As John Sides, Chris Tausanovitch, and Lynn Vavreck point out in their new book The Bitter End, packaging of issues by parties and candidates forces them to choose between competing alternatives, neither of which they support 100%.  Submitting issues to the voters one by one allows them to pick and choose how they vote on each one, avoiding the need to vote for a compromise bundle represented by a candidate or party with whom they agree on some issues, but disagree on others.

Finally, the initiative is tailor-made for capturing the “mad as hell” spirit.  When potentially popular ideas are bottled up by state legislatures, voters need only circulate petitions, gather signatures, and campaign for a “yes” vote to bypass the legislature and pass their will into law.  The aforementioned initiative championed by Schwarzenegger is a case in point—the California General Assembly had little interest in giving up their power to draw districts, so the voters (and Schwarzenegger) took things into their own hands.  The name Californians now use for their redistricting commissions nicely encapsulates the spirit of the ballot initiative.  The project is called, “We Draw the Lines.”  Popular in the 1990s, ballot initiatives imposing term limits on state legislatures (and attempting to place them on Congress) make for another good example of how initiatives can capture the mad as hell spirit.

Yet if something seems too good to be true, it probably is.  The modern-day use of the initiative has not solved all of the problems its advocates describe, and has created some new ones as well.  First and foremost, the initiative has not gotten the money out of politics — a goal near and dear to the hearts of most angry voters (and angry nonvoters, too).  Modern-day initiative campaigns raise and spend hundreds of millions of dollars, much of it from interest groups with a vested interest in the outcome.  With all this money, they utilize professional political consultants and slick advertising campaigns just as much as do candidacies for public office.  The signature-gathering process alone costs an average of $4 million. This is in part due to the fact that the sheer number of signatures required on initiative petitions means that signature collectors are often paid employees, not citizen activists.  In initiative states, “big money” political donors have simply shifted their priorities to funding ballot initiative campaigns alongside backing candidates for office.  To date, the most expensive initiative campaign in history was for Propositions 26 and 27 in California, which would have legalized sports betting.  According to the California Secretary of State’s Office, the total cost was $463.3 million – and they did not pass. Even Jarvis’ famous Prop 13 was not the work of grassroots activism alone — the campaign to pass America’s most famous property tax rollback was generously bankrolled by real estate developers, as Schrag notes.

With major policy decisions and big money at stake, political consultants are sure to follow.  In 2012, Colorado voters legalized the recreational use of marijuana.  Well aware that law and order concerns could derail their efforts, legalization advocates named their organization the “Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol,” and packaged legalization together with a scheme to regulate and tax marijuana.  Today’s initiative campaigns are expensive, highly-sophisticated, consultant-driven political operations, far removed from the spontaneous, grassroots actions of fed-up citizens that advocates may have hoped would materialize from direct democracy.

This form of direct democracy also brings new problems.  One such problem is voter confusion.  Initiatives on the ballot sometimes directly contradict one another, such as two on the same California ballot that would have expanded and abolished the death penalty, respectively. Some ballot measures are about matters about which most voters will have some opinion, but others are about highly technical matters such as the regulation of dialysis clinics, leading to a longer ballot and voter fatigue.

Ballot language can also be confusing.  In 2012, Kansas City, Missouri voters considered a referendum to expand the city’s streetcar system. The entire ballot language for this vote is over 3600 words long and fills six single-spaced pages.  Only the most dedicated policy wonk would even attempt to understand ballot language like the following, an actual excerpt:

Commercial Property: With respect to real property categorized on January 1 of any Assessment Year by the County Assessor as utility, industrial, commercial or railroad for ad valorem tax purposes under applicable Missouri law, and all other real property not included in subclasses (1) and (2) of class 1 within the meaning of Article X, Section 4(b) of the Missouri Constitution, Rev. 2006, as amended (“Non-Residential Property”) (unless subject on January 1 of the applicable Assessment Year to an Exemption, in which event the provisions of subsection (a)(iv) below shall apply), the Real Property Assessment may be imposed for each applicable Assessment Year, in an annual amount not to exceed the sum obtained by (x) multiplying the lesser of (A) One Hundred Fifty Three Million and 00/100 Dollars ($153,000,000.00) increased by two percent (2%) cumulatively commencing on January 1, 2015, and continuing on each second January 1 thereafter, and the market value of such Non-Residential Property, as determined by the County Assessor as of January 1 of the applicable Assessment Year, by 0.0032 (such product being referred to as the “Commercial Assessable Value”), and then multiplying the Commercial Assessable Value of such Non-Residential Property by a rate established from time to time by the Board of Directors of the District, such rate not to exceed Forty- Eight Cents ($0.48) with respect to any Assessment Year (the “Commercial Property Assessment”).

Nor is the problem limited to Kansas City.  In a cite hyperlinked earlier in this essay, Kelsey Piper notes that California’s 2016 voter guide was 224 pages long!

In addition to the convoluted legalese above, ballot issues also lead to allegations of deliberately misleading language.  For example, in 2018 Missouri voters approved a host of political reforms known by supporters as Clean Missouri.  The capstone of this initiative was the delegation of redistricting to a nonpartisan demographer appointed by the state Secretary of State.  Most members of the Missouri General Assembly did not like the new law, so they persuaded Missourians to repeal most of Clean Missouri in a 2020 referendum.  However, the first lines of the 2020 ballot language had nothing to do with redistricting.  Instead, the Clean Missouri repeal led with ballot language that outlawed gifts to lawmakers.  The original Clean Missouri had limited such gifts to those worth $5 or less, so the impact of the change was minimal, which is why disappointed Clean Missouri supporters insist that the gift ban was a bait and switch tactic designed to get voters to repeal the provisions regarding redistricting — provisions which were buried further down in the ballot language.  For their part, Clean Missouri opponents insist that the initiative was flawed from the beginning because of the influence of out-of-state donors, who helped fund the original 2018 campaign.

The expanded use of the petition initiative since 1978 has experienced many growing pains, and it is far from perfect.  Yet America’s fed-up voters will continue to want other outlets for policy change besides depending on their state legislators to always do the right thing.  The petition initiative may not have turned out to be the panacea for mad as hell voters that was promised, but it does offer an alternative to our party-driven representative democracy, which voters often find frustrating.  In one or more states, we can thank (or blame) the initiative for medical and recreational marijuana legalization, term limits, nonpartisan redistricting, English-only laws, affirmative action repeal, regulations on dog breeders and hog and chicken farms, clean energy tax credits, and of course tax caps.  Many observers will find this to be quite a mixed record, but in the states that currently use it, the initiative is probably here to stay.


About the Author

Michael A. Smith is Professor of Political Science and Chair of Social Sciences at Emporia State University.  He has authored or co-authored three books, the most recent of which is co-authored with two Emporia State colleagues, Drs. Bob Grover and Rob Catlett.  It is entitled Low Taxes and Small Government: The Brownback Experiment in Kansas and was released by Lexington in 2019.  He has other academic publications as well, and also writes newspaper columns carried throughout Kansas as part of the Insight Kansas group and blogs for the MPSA. Michael appears occasionally on television and radio in Kansas and western Missouri to discuss state and national politics.  He was an expert witness for the plantiff in the Bednasek v Kobach case, decided together with Fish v Kobach by the federal district court for Kansas in 2018.  Michael teaches courses in American politics, state and local government, and political philosophy. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Missouri in 2000. Follow Michael on Twitter