Political Elites and Candidates Ties to Ballot Initiatives

June 29, 2009

As contributions to candidates begin to wane under the pressure of court opinions, political actors reassert themselves in newfound ways to ensure the fulfillment of their political desires to the detriment of ordinary citizens; the last 30 years of American political history corroborates this.  After reviewing the last three decades, scholars contend that [w]ell-funded interests can influence the recruitment and selection of candidates; they can manipulate the salience of issues that will dominate the public agenda; and they can shape other conditions of political engagement in a way that less wealthy people cannot” (Garrett, 2002, 6). A California study showed that sixty-eight percent of all initiative campaign contributions come from lobbying interests (Du Vivier, 2007, 1048). Furthermore, spending on initiatives in California alone has spiked from “$25 million in 1982 to around $390 million in 2005” (Dempsey, 2007, 126).  Although there is not a guarantee that money increases the likelihood of success for a particular initiative, it does play an important role “in exposure and how the public perceives an issue” (Du Vivier, 2007, 1048, 1049). Considering that political elites and veiled political actors deceptively fulfill their interests without the public knowing, the power of money allows them to shape the perceptions of an uninformed public. The U.S. Supreme Court’s rulings, limiting disclosure and transparency, have provided a fertile ground for corruption to exist with deft political actors exacting their interests unbeknownst to the general public.

Even more troubling is that elected officials are inextricably bound to the initiative process. In fact, their political future depends upon it: “Now, elected officials face strong incentives to treat ballot measure contributions with almost the same importance as reelection contributions, in part because the candidate’s popularity, agenda, and political power can be heavily influenced by how those contributions are spent and which initiatives pass or fail” (Dempsey, 2007, 124).   To contextualize this, consider the extensive use of the initiative process by Governor Schwarzenegger to advance not only his own agenda, but also his political financiers. The damage is that a hopefully corruption-free tool for the citizenry to use to achieve their desires becomes infused with special interests and politicians alike; this is precisely what the Progressive era reformers sought to avoid. Schwarzenegger has been able to amass large contributions for his platforms because of the lack of campaign ballot issue contribution limits or other forms of government regulation (Dempsey, 2007, 125). As a result, candidate-controlled campaign ballot measure committees now “serve as major conduits…to put huge contributions into the hands of elected officials for use in promoting political agendas” (Dempsey, 2007, 126). California law limits donor contributions to $22,300 for governor’s election bid (Dempsey, 2007, 125). On the other hand, donor contributions are not limited with respect to the initiative process (Dempsey, 2007, 125). The result is that “a few hundred major corporate donors and wealthy individuals” gave Governor Schwarzenegger “an extra $26 million for his agenda that would have otherwise been barred” if donated for his election (Dempsey, 2007, 148). Thus, the reality is that the Governor utilizes the process to advance his own agenda, free from government regulation in many ways. Now, roughly three-quarters of Californian voters call for change in the initiative process; it is a function of big interests, leaving ordinary citizens in the fray (Dempsey, 2007, 125). It is disconcerting that candidates like Schwarzenegger no longer seek political contributions to his campaign but the initiatives upon which he is running.

In some respects, the initiative process allows a politician a second bite at the apple when they have lost in other mediums. It is quite clear that initiative process is now attractive to politicians because it provides them access to unlimited, monetary contributions. It is further unsurprising then as politicians continue to use the initiative process that citizens become alienated in the process.


4 Responses to “Political Elites and Candidates Ties to Ballot Initiatives”

  1. Prof Robinson said

    I’d be interested to learn more about whether and to what extent California is the ‘norm’ here. What data and examples do you have on other states?

  2. karlgiu said

    California is representative, in the sense, that corruption exists there as well as elsewhere. I am uncertain if I can disclose information freely about South Dakota, but suffice it to say that there are examples of corruption in S.D. as well.

    A problem that exists in this area of research and literature, however, is the high level of focus paid by researchers on states like California or Oregon, not states like South Dakota or North Dakota. Accordingly, information is unknown. An assumed norm can exist, but an exemplar, like California, cannot serve as a proxy for other states on this issue.

    I have a working paper on this that is available online and will explain much of what you seek to understand, please look to the bottom of this comment for that address. California, as I have suggested in comments earlier, represents a high-use state, meaning a high frequency of ballot initiatives per year for every year evaluated. South Dakota, on the other hand, is a moderate-use state. In short, we compared the ballot initiative contexts of both California and South Dakota, expecting that differences in each state would disrupt continuity of their respective beliefs regarding the initiative process. The findings for the perception of corruption, although the converse of what was expected, demonstrates that both populaces believe the ballot initiative process is an important public policy mechanism and that they dislike the involvement of special interests in the process. Both states’ citizens support disclosure.

    Although California may not be the norm, it does not deviate from other states, even when expected to. This, in and of itself, is quite significant.


  3. emergingchristianity said

    All of this sounds like some very important work that could have a tremendous impact on many different items within the government on many different levels. Unfortunately, I don’t quite fully understand all that you are talking about quite frankly because I don’t have the political knowledge you do, but from what I do grasp, it sounds like this research could cause quite a stir. I’m very interested to hear you speak more about this in class.


  4. Josh Doorn said

    It looks like you have made great progress! While doing this research do you feel that campaign funding should be controlled more or not? Good luck with the rest of the year!

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