Direct Democracy

Posted on November 21, 2016 by

I was visiting friends in northern California during the US election, and although I have thoughts and opinions about Trump, US politics and the electoral college, I’m going to put those issues aside. Instead I would like to share my experience with the ballot propositions in California (I’m from NY, so I have little experience with ballot propositions).

I spent an afternoon just before election day talking through the 17 (!) ballot propositions up for vote in the state of California with a good friend and California resident. We are both philosophers and both keep a close eye on the news, so one might think that a simple yes or no decision on each proposition would be straightforward. It turns out that that was not the case at all. And for the most part our difficulty had little to do with idealogical or political differences.

Many of the propositions up for vote were necessarily quite long and complex; many of them included legalistic or otherwise technical language; while still others looked to have downstream/future effects that would be extremely difficult to predict. None of these difficulties should be surprising given the nature and complexity of legislation more generally, but all of them seriously impeded our ability, as laypeople, to easily judge the propositions.

My worry here is that in many (most) cases voters who are not experts in a particular area don’t have the necessary background knowledge to reasonably assess either the content or consequences of many of the propositions. This lead my friend and I to employ heuristics to judge many of the propositions. For example, proposition 60 — condoms in porn (see Josh’s post) — was almost universally opposed by the actors it was supposed to protect. This seemed like good evidence against proposition 60.

Another heuristic we used was to look at the groups advocating for and against particular propositions. If a clear pattern emerged, as it often did, that could give us reason to lean one way or the other. Notice here that I’m not talking about the particular arguments of said groups, but rather their more general policy orientations and interests, which presumably provide evidence of the groups’ motives.

But all of this takes a lot of time. I suspect that many voters are unable or unwilling to spend hours and hours doing research on and around ballot propositions. This could be partly rectified by making election day a national holiday — if you aren’t working on election day, you may be more likely to take a few hours in the morning to get up to speed before voting. Of course there are problems with this as well, though perhaps not insurmountable.

All of this is to say that direct democracy, at least in the way it’s practiced in California, may not actually be representative of of the preferences of the populace, and so should be treated with caution.