Direct Legislation in California

To the Editor of The Nation:

Sir: The struggles of the people of California with their Constitution during the past year have been so notable as to be worthy of record in the Nation. In November, 1910, the people voted on and adopted eight amendments to the Constitution aggregating about 4,400 words. Eleven months later in October, 1911, they voted on twenty-three amendments to the same Constitution, aggregating above 33,000 words. The significance of these figures may be better appreciated if we recall that the entire Constitution of the United States, without the amendments, amounts to about 4,000 words. Restated, in terms of the Federal Constitution as a unit, California has by popular vote in less than a twelvemonth, in two elections and by thirty separate enactments, amended a Constitution five and one-half times as long as the Constitution of the United States by nearly five times as long. I admit that this is “going some.” I have a feeling that California has probably captured another record. But at least the endurance record remains to be contested for.

One of the amendments just adopted contains 3,600 words, and three of them above 2,000 words each. They range–I had almost said from grave to gay–but at any rate from initiative, referendum, and recall, judges included, to woman suffrage and the prescription of a thirty-day compulsory recess for the Legislature, after the main grist of the bills has been introduced. The whole structure of the State has been vitally altered, and it would be interesting to know to what extent it represents the real intelligent will of the electorate.

Of course, there are obvious physical, if not intellectual, limitations on the effective digestion of such a mass of legislation by four hundred thousand electors. As an aid, the secretary of state, under authority of the law, sent to each registered voter a broadside thirty-eight by twenty-five inches in size and a supplemental sheet nine and one-half by twelve and one-half inches, containing the proposed amendments, together with arguments for, and in some cases against them. These sheets were densely printed on both sides in non-pareil type. Figures and specifications convey no idea of the repellent, not to say impossible, nature of this huge double-faced broadside, packed with scores of thousands of minute words as close together as the linotype could stick them. No doubt this was profitably referred to here and there, and without some such assistance the vote would have been a mere farce, but the writer has not yet discovered anybody who claims to have deciphered the whole sheet, nor is it conceivable that one voter in ten can by any possibility have read even the 16,300 words of the amendments themselves.

As bearing upon the amount of intelligent volition which such law-making involves, it is important to note that but one of the thirty-one amendments submitted in the year, involving as they did, and as it may well be believed they would, the government of the State in almost every aspect, was defeated. Everything else that was proposed went through by varying majorities.

The official returns of the vote are now complete, and enable one to form some estimate, though not a very satisfactory one, of the extent to which a civic revolution represents deliberate public opinion. The total vote of the State for Governor at the election in November, 1910, when the first eight amendments were adopted, was 388,713. The vote at the recent election ranges from 246,487 down to 193,778, or say, from 64 to 50 per cent of the gubernatorial vote in the preceding November; the average vote on all the amendments being about 54 1/2 per cent of the standard. That the vote would have fallen far below this but for the interest taken in the suffrage amendment is undoubted. But, as it is, 55 per cent of the people have, under circumstances of the utmost disadvantage and necessary unintelligence, passed a small volume of legislation on such other topics, besides the matters already mentioned, as weights and measures, city and county government, eminent domain, legal procedure, compensation for accidents, the civil service of the State, its public utilities commission, changes in school text-books, elections, justices of the peace, railway passes, clerks of courts, and exemptions from taxation. The woman suffrage amendment was carried by less than 1 1/2 per cent of the less than 64 per cent of the electorate who voted on it. Some light is thrown upon the probable working of such wholesale popular legislation by the fact that, with the exception of one virtually non-contentious amendment (as to appeals in criminal cases), the largest vote (77 per cent of the total cast on it) was given to the provision for the recall of all elective officers (which includes judges)–a measure which, whatever one may think of its merits, would, I suppose, quite generally be admitted to be in an experimental stage. Evidently, in California there are other things besides the guns that have no doubts, or none worth mentioning.

There is some occasion for encouragement in the fact that one relatively unimportant but vicious amendment authorizing peace officers and members of the Railroad Commission to accept passes from railways did manage to be defeated by a majority of 6,000 in a vote of 206,000, after having been denounced by the entire press and all the intelligent opinion of the State. While defeat is better than passage, its narrow escape from becoming fundamental law under even these circumstances is not calculated to exalt one’s confidence unduly in direct legislation by the multitude.


Palo Alto, Cal., November 27