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Direct Democracy at Work

Wednesday, Nov 2, 2016

The USC Initiative and Referendum Institute shows voters attaining desired outcomes

- By Julie Riggott 

In the Election 2016 spotlight, while the media is completely absorbed in the upcoming presidential election,John G. Matsusaka, executive director of the Initiative and Referendum Institute at USC, is concentrating on something else: ballot initiatives. He thinks we should too.

California voters will decide 17 propositions, as well as dozens of local measures, in November. Among the State props: Do we want to ban plastic bags at supermarkets? Legalize marijuana? Ban the death penalty? Increase gun control?
“These are issues that have very immediate and material effects on what people do and how they live their lives,” says Matsusaka, Charles F. Sexton Chair in American Enterprise with USC Gould and the Marshall School of Business. “Because these are real operational decisions, they affect our lives in some ways more than a
presidential election does.”
John Matsusaka, pictured in his office at USC
Across the country, voters will evaluate hundreds of other measures. Matsusaka and the Institute will be following the outcomes. The Institute is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization, established in 1998 in Washington, D.C. to collect and disseminate knowledge about direct democracy, which includes the initiative and referendum processes. In 2004, the Institute moved to USC — a good move, Matsusaka says, because “a lot of direct democracy takes place on the West Coast — very little in D.C. — and California is ground zero.”
Focused on creating knowledge, the Institute tracks, counts and maintains databases on initiatives and referendums, and is a go-to source for media, citizens and lawmakers who want to know answers to questions like: What is the history of the medical marijuana initiatives?
Matsusaka also tackles some fairly big questions in his research. “There is some controversy about whether it’s a good idea or a bad idea for us to be making laws through these processes,” Matsusaka says. “Some people say: ‘Let the legislature do its job.’ Others say: ‘The legislature is captured by special interests so voters need a way to override them.’ These competing views have been around for more than 100 years.”
Which view is more accurate? Matsusaka says we first need to know whether direct democracy is actually changing outcomes, because some of the laws passed by direct democracy might have been passed by the legislature anyway.
Looking at tax and spending policies in the states over the past 50 years, he has found that direct democracy does indeed make a difference. The data show that initiative states tax and spend less, and, moreover, the gap between initiative and non-initiative states has been dramatically widening in the last five years.
By linking outcomes to public opinion, Matsusaka has sought to discover if they match what the majority wants. “What I find pretty much consistently is that voters like the outcomes they are getting in initiative states better than the outcomes they are getting in non-initiative states,” he says.
The Institute’s data are a vote of confidence for direct democracy. According to Matsusaka, “the process is working in the sense that voters are getting what they want.”
Find out more about the Initiative and Referendum Institute
This article originally appeared in the Fall 2016 issue of the USC Law magazine.

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