By Dan Schnur

Direct democracy is a part of California’s DNA and is deeply ingrained in our state Constitution. For California voters, the Constitution has long given us the right to legislate directly at the ballot box.

Direct democracy was a Progressive-era reform promoted over a century ago by former Gov. Hiram Johnson and designed as a public check on the influence of special interests in the state Legislature. When the establishment of the initiative, referendum and recall were put before voters in 1911, they passed with 76% of the vote. Today, two-thirds of California voters still back direct democracy, according to polling from the Public Policy Institute of California.

The long-enshrined right of the people to legislate by initiative has been jealously guarded by our courts again and again. This right is sacred, and it’s one reason I was heartened that the First District Court of Appeal in March upheld the core elements of Proposition 22.

In 2020, California voters approved Proposition 22 with 58% of the vote. The measure establishes a new test for determining whether app-based drivers, such as those who work with Uber, Lyft and DoorDash, are independent contractors or employees, and it provides new benefits and workplace protections for drivers who work independently.

Given voters’ strong approval of Proposition 22 and now an appellate court decision that applied longstanding legal precedent in upholding the measure, the conversation around the constitutionality of the measure should be over. The Court of Appeal’s ruling is consistent with a century’s worth of case law regarding voters’ democratic rights, and the decision should not be disturbed.

Nonetheless, opponents of the measure have indicated that they may petition the California Supreme Court for review. In addition to attempting to undo the will of the voters, a continued attack on Proposition 22 threatens to diminish the constitutional right of initiative. Should the case go before the Supreme Court, it’s in the interest of voters and California’s democracy for the measure to be upheld.

Over the past half-century, the people have used their initiative power to make sweeping policy decisions by initiative statute. They have created the Coastal Commission, reined in consumer insurance rates, mandated toxic chemical warnings, increased mental health funding, raised the minimum wage, reformed the criminal justice system, strengthened gun control and decriminalized marijuana.

Another prominent example is Proposition 9, the Political Reform Act of 1974, the nation’s first comprehensive political reform statute following the Watergate scandal. As a former chairman of the Fair Political Practices Commission — the government ethics agency created by Proposition 9 — I am very familiar with the Political Reform Act initiative and the many unsuccessful challenges to it.

In many ways, the objections that have been raised against Proposition 22 resemble the objections that were raised to Proposition 9 — and they should also be unsuccessful. In both cases, the voices of the people of California were being ignored by powerful special interests. In both cases, the people prevailed at the ballot box.

For more than a century, the state’s voters have had the right to legislate by initiative on an equal footing with the Legislature. And courts have repeatedly recognized the right as one they should “jealously guard.”

Proposition 22 — and the millions of Californians who voted for it — deserve no less.

Daniel Schnur is a former chair of the California Fair Political Practices Commission and an adjunct professor at the University of Southern California, UC Berkeley and Pepperdine University. 

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