California’s leading pollster and direct democracy expert joins USC Price School

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California’s leading pollster and direct democracy expert joins USC Price School
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– Pollster Mark Baldassare is the new senior fellow for the Bedrosian Center on Governance.
– He’s directed the PPIC Statewide Survey for 25 years, giving residents a voice in public policy decisions.
– He’s writing a book exploring solutions to California’s direct democracy system.

Mark Baldassare might know more about California voters than just about anyone. For a quarter century, he’s regularly asked them what they think about guns, climate change, homelessness, the economy, teachers’ salaries and other pressing issues as director of the Public Policy Institute of California Statewide (PPIC) Survey.

Such timely, trusted public polling plays an important role in democracy, giving residents a voice and informing lawmakers. The surveys may be even more significant in a place like California, where voters often get the chance to decide on public policy themselves through ballot initiatives, referendums and recall elections.

Baldassare, a new senior fellow for the Bedrosian Center on Governance at the USC Sol Price School of Public Policy, is now exploring California’s complicated, century-long history with direct democracy. He’s writing a book about how the state’s system of letting voters change laws and remove politicians has been used in the past – and what that means for democracy in the future.

“What can we learn from the direct democracy system in California that might help us have a democracy in which voters are more engaged in the policy-making process, have more input, feel less alienated and feel more trust in the decisions that are made?” Baldassare said.

California ballot initiative and recall systems criticized

California’s direct democracy came under scrutiny after the 2021 gubernatorial recall election and last year’s failed ballot propositions on sports betting. In the case of the recall, critics noted that Gov. Gavin Newsom could have been replaced by a candidate who received fewer votes in the general election, though he ultimately won handedly.

The flood of sports betting ads during the 2022 election, meanwhile, showcased special interests’ strong influence on what ends up on the ballot. The most expensive ballot proposition campaign in U.S. history likewise went down in defeat.

Most Californians still believe they’re better at deciding policy than politicians, but voters think the citizens’ initiative – which gives them a way to propose laws and constitutional amendments – is in need of changes, according to PPIC polls. Among other things, they’re concerned about the role of special interest groups and the complex language used for ballot measures.

“Voters really valued the opportunity to have an initiative process, but they feel that a lot of times the ballot measures are confusing,” Baldassare said.

His book will explore potential solutions. One idea is to establish an independent citizens’ panel, which would examine the pros and cons of ballot measures, hold public hearings and maybe make formal decisions, almost like a grand jury. Another possibility is restricting the use of paid signature gatherers that give wealthy interests an edge over groups relying on volunteers to get measures on the ballot.

How California can tackle climate change through ballot questions

Baldassare also wants direct democracy to be used to tackle climate change. Since solutions will likely require citizens to change their lifestyles, he said it’s important that voters buy into new policies through ballot questions.

For example, he pointed to the California Coastal Commission, a state agency that regulates land and water use along the coast. It was created 50 years ago through a ballot measure and remains very popular among voters today, he said.

“One thing that I know about the initiative process is that when people vote for things on the ballot, and they pass, it becomes a public policy that’s very meaningful to the public at large,” Baldassare said.

Baldassare, who stepped down as president and CEO of PPIC after 15 years last month, is still survey director. As senior fellow of governance at the USC Price School, he is developing a seminar on polling to give students and faculty a window into the world of polling. The seminar will touch on maintaining polling quality, methodology, best practices and lessons learned from the 2022 election that can be applied in 2024.

“Every time I do a poll, I’m thinking about being the voice for people who don’t have an opportunity to sit down in their elected officials’ office and say, ‘This is what I think,'” Baldassare said. “I want to talk to the students and faculty about that, because I think it’s very important for public policy schools and public policy research to think about how to use polling to inform our elected officials.”

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