Crypto-Initiatives in Hybrid Democracy – Commentary by Elizabeth Garrett

From Volume 78, Number 4 (May 2005)

Most Americans live in a hybrid democracy: a democratic system that is neither wholly representative nor wholly direct, but a complex combination of both at the local and state levels, which in turn influences national politics. One characteristic of a hybrid system is that politicians, interest groups, and political parties strategically use initiatives to affect voter turnout in candidate elections, to increase their membership rolls and the funds in their political war chests, and to evade campaign finance restrictions that apply in many candidate races. The use of the initiative process by politicians and parties is not new, but it seems to be increasing in recent years, or at least it is more salient. Savvy political actors are using what Thad Kousser and Mathew McCubbins call “crypto-initiatives,” which are “initiatives… designed by agenda setters… who have other goals in mind [than changing public policy]; for them, affecting policy is often at most a secondary concern.” Most of the initiatives that Kousser and McCubbins go on to describe are generated or manipulated by candidates, political parties, or other political actors seeking to aid the campaigns of particular candidates or parties.

The notion of crypto-initiatives underscores the heavy involvement of elected officials and political parties in the initiative process, a theme also emphasized in Richard Hasen’s contribution to this Symposium, which reveals the number of California issue committees controlled by politicians. In the past, much of the scholarship in law and social sciences has been preoccupied with the influence of organized and well-funded interest groups on the initiative process, or the role of wealthy individuals who back petition drives and ballot measure campaigns. Kousser and McCubbins’s article raises the question of how the involvement of political actors – who are accountable to the voters – differs from the involvement of these other groups and people. Kousser and McCubbins spend most of their time on the malignant effects of crypto-initiatives on policy and governance; I want to sketch out three effects that might be positive.



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