California's Broken Ballot Initiative System Endangers Civil Rights

Ballot initiatives play an increasingly important role in setting policy in California on every issue from healthcare and the environment to same-sex marriage. In 1911, when wealthy special interests had corrupted politics in Sacramento and crippled the people’s ability to hold government accountable, California established the initiative, referendum, and recall to give the people the power to make or unmake their own state laws and to remove their elected officials. But today, that system is not functioning as it was intended, especially for California’s new majority.

Wealthy special interest dollars fuel the initiative economy, which coupled with a lack of review and oversight, plus poor voter education on ballot measures, has led to poorly drafted proposals, legal challenges and attacks on people’s civil rights. This is not the empowering direct democracy reformers had envisioned.

In 2011, the Greenlining Institute launched an unprecedented effort to identify a set of reforms to fix our broken system. With funding from California Forward, the James Irvine Foundation, and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, we conducted a two-part public opinion survey of a representative sample of California adults in June and December, 2011.1 More importantly, we convened 17 community listening sessions across 14 cities to learn more about real voter experiences, attitudes and ideas for direct democracy. The input we received from the community, in addition to that from a 33-member advisory panel of policy experts, good government groups, and community-based leaders, helped us develop a reform agenda that can start to return the initiative system to its “citizen democracy” roots.

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The Road Ahead for Atlanta

We have had an opportunity to work with Atlanta’s Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) to create something called the Social Equity Advisory Committee, which is charged with holding the planners and others at MPO accountable for issues of equity, balanced growth and inclusion. I think now, more than ever, it is very important for us as equity leaders to not only focus on winning the game, but also changing the rules.

How do we define and measure equity through the various planning agencies? How do we create formal processes where people get involved and engage in the decision-making? How do we create spaces and opportunities for communities of color and low wealth communities to actually be engaged—not just invited to the table—as people involved in moving our communities forward? 

The civic engagement process initially was created at a time when you had the nuclear family—a two-parent household, suburban America, and people who had time to get involved in meetings. Now our society is a lot more diverse in terms of age, race and income. Because of that, there are diverse ways by which we must give our community the opportunities to engage and act. For me, that is also where the sweet spot exists.

“It’s not enough for us to do the research and come up with great ideas if people can’t hold onto them.

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Atlanta: Unsafe at Any Speed

Transit Fatality Raises Issues of Race, Poverty and Transportation Justice


in July 2011, an all white jury in suburban Atlanta convicted Raquel Nelson, an African American single mother of three, of second degree vehicular homicide for the death of her four-year-old son in a hit-and-run incident on a busy thoroughfare. She was also charged with reckless conduct for crossing a roadway other than at a crosswalk and faced a three-year jail sentence.

The story is tragic and seemingly incomprehensible, especially when you learn that the driver of the vehicle was eventually caught, admitted to driving under the influence of alcohol and prescription drugs, had two previous hit-and run- convictions, and was blind in one eye—but received just six months in jail under a plea bargain. However, taken in the context of Atlanta’s history, the incident does not seem so strange and is a good illustration of the challenges Atlanta faces going forward.
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Selma to Montgomery March: From Voting Rights to Immigration 1965-2012

Every year, the NAACP holds a rally from March 4-9 to commemorate the Selma to Montgomery march and draw attention to the issues facing African Americans in America.  Since the passage of Alabama’s HB 56—the nation’s worst anti-immigrant law—the NAACP has reached out to organizations around the country to build lasting relationships between Civil Rights and Immigrant Rights communities over their common history of struggle. The event marks the coming together of a broad movement for a renewed call for civil rights in America. This year, a core part of their agenda was a demand to repeal HB 56.    

Gamaliel, a grassroots network of non-partisan, faith-based organizations in 18 U.S. states, South Africa and the United Kingdom, is now taking on the voting rights issue. They are working together with the NAACP and other social justice organizations on “Get out the Vote” initiatives for the Fall elections. 

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New Battleground States: Georgia and Arizona

The 2010 Census clearly documents a profound population shift in the U.S., which could be a game-changer for the progressive community. However, given the  regressive rhetoric and policies of conservatives  toward voters of color (VOC) and progressive whites, states like Arizona and Georgia are rapidly turning into key battlegrounds. The populations of both states have increased significantly since 2000 and each has gained a new congressional seat and an extra Electoral College vote.

In Arizona, VOCs now make up 24 percent of the voting population. In 2008, an impressive 74 percent of registered voters went to the polls. In Phoenix, long a Republican stronghold, the population grew by 9.4 percent to nearly 1.5 million with significant numbers of them being people of color. The city recently elected a Latino city councilman and a Democrat for mayor.

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