Kill the ‘Sodomite Suppression Act,’ reform California’s ballot initiative process

The recent news that a proposed initiative bill, the “Sodomite Suppression Act,” would require the execution of gays and lesbians in California has, quite rightly, generated a great deal of public and press attention.

This homegrown “kill the gays bill,” quite similar to the equally controversial bill proposed a few years back in Uganda that raised the ire of the international human rights community, is the brainchild of a Southern California lawyer named Matt McGlaughlin. Since McGlaughlin is not speaking to the press, we have no idea if he’s serious about this law or if it is an example of an attempt to satirize a fundamentalist point of view that has fallen victim to Poe’s Law, which states that extreme views eventually become so extreme that they are impossible to satirize.

Whatever the case, McGlaughlin has paid his $200 and filed his paperwork. It remains to be seen if there’s legally any way to keep this measure from receiving a title and summary for circulation. While the initiative, unconstitutional on its face, is most likely an exaggeration of a particular insanely extreme point of view, it’s not an exaggeration to say that the “Sodomite Suppression Act” has exposed how desperately California’s initiative process is in need of reform.

First, while we understand the democratic-with-a-small-"d” need to make initiatives easy to propose, there are consequences to that ease, as this case makes clear. With a filing fee of only $200, it is unavoidable that there will be nuisance or hobbyhorse initiatives proposed. At the very least, the initiative process needs to cost proponents the amount of money that the attorney general and the secretary of state must spend in order to prepare the initiative for circulation.

Second, the situation in which Attorney General Kamala Harris finds herself is one of serving very nearly as a rubber stamp. Despite the obvious illegality of the proposed initiative, it appears there is no provision in the law for the attorney general to deny certification of the initiative for circulation. While the likelihood of this particular initiative making it onto the ballot and then being approved by voters is slim, there needs to be some mechanism to keep initiatives that advocate murder out of circulation. Perhaps our predecessors were so over-endowed with common sense that we’ve never needed such a mechanism, but it’s apparent that we need it now.

And finally, as we have long argued here at SN&R, the use of paid signature gatherers is another obviously undemocratic loophole in the laws which govern the initiative process. Allowing proponents of initiatives to pay as much as $12 or $13 per signature makes it inevitable that deep-pocket special interests and well-funded campaigns will continue to promote initiatives at the expense of grassroots campaigns which more accurately reflect the democratic intent of the initiative process.

These paid signature gatherers often have no real understanding of the measures for which they are working, nor are they regulated as to the veracity of their claims. We have, on numerous occasions, listened while signature gatherers who were being paid for that task have promulgated obviously false information in order to earn their 12 bucks.

At its heart, the initiative process is intended to offer the citizenry of the state of California an opportunity to weigh in and propose necessary laws that, for whatever reason, their elected representatives have not enacted.

Unfortunately, in the last three decades, the process has become a means by which radical extremists can gain publicity with very little expenditure, as McGlaughlin’s proposal has done, or—and this is the worst case scenario—allowed those monied special-interest groups to do an end run around the legislative process whenever it suits them.

The initiative process has, in fact, become the opposite of the democratic process it was intended to be. Where once it was envisioned as a way to encourage citizens to become involved with their own government, it is now the province of a small group of people, and worse yet, the plethora of initiatives and referendum on some ballots may be discouraging public engagement with that most precious of civic duties, voting. As voter turnout dips ever lower, how often do we hear potential voters cite the overwhelming number of issues on the ballot about which they must educate themselves as a reason not to vote?

It is with these facts in mind that we urge the California legislature to increase the cost of an initiative so that it is self-sustaining. We further encourage the legislature to begin examining an amendment that would eliminate the practice of using paid signature gatherers.

It is more than time to return the initiative process to its democratic roots, and take it out of the hands of the monied special interests, the attention seekers and the fringe extremists.