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Morning Briefing: Why California Has So Many Propositions

The envelope for a 2020 Los Angeles County ballot. (LAist staff)
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Good morning, L.A.

If you’re planning on voting in the upcoming election (and we hope you are!), you’ve probably noticed that there are a lot of propositions to sift through, as there are in most election years in California. And if you’re wondering who to blame for all the studying they require, Marketplace reporter Meghan McCarty Carino reports that you can point your finger at one Hiram Johnson.

Johnson, who served as governor of California from 1911-17, made it his mission to wrench power from wealthy railroad barons and state legislators, among whose ranks his own father happened to belong. He did so by instituting the ballot initiative process.

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"He saw [ballot initiatives] as tools for fights,” says Joe Mathews, author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It. “He sold it as, ‘It'll be like a gun in a man's hand.'"

The process, as Johnson envisioned it, made it very difficult for legislators to change propositions that voters turned into law. While perhaps well-intentioned, Mathews notes that Johnson was also “loud, bombastic [and] angry,” and that the less-than-ideal system he left in his wake was essentially a result of his "daddy issues."

Keep reading for more on what’s happening in L.A. today, and stay safe out there.

Jessica P. Ogilvie

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Coming Up Today, October 23

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Election 2020: Check out last night’s virtual event featuring host Austin Cross and reporter Libby Denkmann answering questions about voting, specific races, and propositions on the ballot. Here’s NPR’s live fact-check of the second (and final) debate between President Donald Trump and his Democratic challenger, Joe Biden. The history behind why California has so many ballot propositions can be traced back to one man.

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This post has been updated to reflect changes in what's coming up for today.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified where the ballot box fire took place. LAist regrets the error.


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