Should Constitutional Amendments Go First on the Ballot?

It's obvious that the motives of Democrats and Gov. Jerry Brown were political when they passed a bill, as part of the budget, to move initiatives that amend the constitution to the top of the November ballot, ahead of statutory initiatives.

The main beneficiary of this policy change would be Brown's temporary-tax-hike initiative, which is backed by the Democratic establishment, because it's one of only two constitutional amendments on a ballot dominated by initiatives that merely change statues.

The state is going to face lawsuits for this political trick. But leave the politics aside: sometimes good things can happen for bad reasons. Is there policy merit to moving constitutional amendments to the top of the ballot?

My answer: yes and no. There is a good argument for such a change -- and two good arguments against it. Let's look at all three.

The Pro Argument

Constitutional amendments are a big deal, and they should get serious, special consideration, because California's constitution is so hard to change. But previous to this bill, the ballot design did not distinguish between initiatives that merely change laws and initiatives that change the constitution.

This change, by putting constitutional amendments at the top of the ballot, provides a little more clarity. Because initiatives at the top of the ballot are perceived as receiving more scrutiny (though the political science is far from conclusive on this), putting constitutional amendments there makes some sense.

Of course, this change is a half-measure. The ballot initiatives will still be listed by number, and it may not be apparent to voters that the top measures are constitutional amendments.

It would be better to make it plain on the ballot -- perhaps by separating the measures from each other, instead of keeping the measures in a long list, with the constitutional changes first.

The Con Arguments

Putting constitutional amendments first is considered a political advantage, particularly on a long ballot. Conventional wisdom is that people are more likely to vote no the further they go down the list of measures.

But should California be giving advantages to constitutional amendments? No, it shouldn't. It's already too easy to amend the constitution -- it's a big reason why the document is one of the longest constitutions in the world, and why the document is so convoluted.

Indeed, giving an advantage to constitutional amendments could encourage some initiative sponsors who previously were content to change the law to attempt constitutional change instead. In other words, this change would be an incentive to pursue constitutional amendments -- at a time when California needs to make it harder to pursue constitutional amendments.

The change makes things easier for the richest people and interest groups, who are already have too much power in the initiative process. Qualifying a constitutional amendment is much more expensive than qualifying a statute. So giving an advantage to constitutional amendments -- in ballot order -- simply gives an additional boost to the richest initiative sponsors.

Lead Prop Zero blogger Joe Mathews is California editor at Zocalo Public Square, a fellow at Arizona State University’s Center for Social Cohesion, and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (University of California, 2010).

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