From Hiram Johnson to the 'Sodomite Suppression Act'

Hiram Johnson was a two-term governor of California in the early 20th century who was a big believer in “direct democracy” — giving the voter powers that had formerly been reserved for political elites. He brought the ideas of ballot initiatives, referendums, and recalls to California. And he made the process of filing for these innovations as inexpensive as possible.


Johnson’s legacy was to give California perhaps the most open democratic system of any state in the country. Grassroots movements lowering property taxes, overturning the ban on gay marriage, and reforming government at all levels have given the people of California a powerful voice in their own affairs.

But ballot initiatives have also led to some silly, stupid, and dangerous ideas. The Economist offered this analysis of California’s “direct democracy”:

This citizen legislature has caused chaos. Many initiatives have either limited taxes or mandated spending, making it even harder to balance the budget. Some are so ill-thought-out that they achieve the opposite of their intent: for all its small-government pretensions, Proposition 13 ended up centralising California’s finances, shifting them from local to state government. Rather than being the curb on elites that they were supposed to be, ballot initiatives have become a tool of special interests, with lobbyists and extremists bankrolling laws that are often bewildering in their complexity and obscure in their ramifications. And they have impoverished the state’s representative government. Who would want to sit in a legislature where 70-90% of the budget has already been allocated?

Yes, it’s a mess. Democracy is like that, being “the worst form of government, except for all the others,” as Winston Churchill believed. But clearly, there are times when the ballot initiative becomes an embarrassment. Take the case of  Huntington Beach attorney Matt McLaughlin, who is either a jokester with a warped sense of humor, or a fanatical zealot who should probably be in a straightjacket.


McLaughlin plunked down $200 at the Secretary of State’s office, proposing a ballot measure that would authorize the killing of gays and lesbians by “bullets to the head,” or “any other convenient method.”

The wording of the proposal should shock the sensibilities of even the most rabid anti-gay activist:

McLaughlin’s plan refers to “buggery” or “sodomy” as “a monstrous evil that Almighty God, giver of freedom and liberty, commands us to suppress on pain of our utter destruction even as he overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah.” Under the proposal, “… any person who willingly touches another person of the same gender for purposes of sexual gratification (would) be put to death by bullets to the head or by any other convenient method.”

Anyone transmitting “sodomistic propaganda” to a minor would be fined $1 million per offense, and/or imprisoned up to 10 years, and/or expelled from California for up to life. It would ban lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people, or those who espouse sodomistic propaganda, or who belong to any group that does, from serving in public office, holding government jobs and obtaining public benefits.

“This law is effective immediately and shall not be rendered ineffective nor invalidated by any court, state or federal, until heard by a quorum of the Supreme Court of California consisting only of judges who are neither sodomites nor subject to disqualification hereunder,” it states.


Secretary of State Kamala Harris is being asked to deep-six the initiative, despite the fact that the law clearly states she must come up with a 100-word summary and authorize the gathering of signatures. A court may eventually bar the initiative from the ballot, but until then, Californians may be accosted at shopping malls and grocery stores by fanatics, asking them to sign a petition that advocates murder.

McLaughlin’s initiative has set off a debate in California over the entire process. Some want to substantially raise the cost of filing an initiative to discourage just this kind of idiocy. But others think that would be a mistake:

Jennifer Fearing, the president of Fearless Advocacy and a veteran of lower-wattage campaigns, said she isn’t sure “there’s a price that stops crazy.”

“It’s important to preserve access to direct democracy even if some jerks can get over the first and lowest hurdle on occasion,” she said.

While it’s exceedingly unlikely McLaughlin’s measure would qualify, the signature threshold for November 2016, at 365,880, is unusually low.

Fearing said unless he could come up with $1 million to pay signature collectors, and upward of $10 million to advertise, “we are all just going to have to hope he’s having his shameful 15 minutes of infamy.”

There’s a move to disbar McLaughlin, although that, too, appears doomed. Evidently, the rules governing disbarment for such behavior favor the crazies.


Even though he would not approve of the measure, wherever Hiram Johnson is, he’s probably smiling. Direct democracy has wreaked havoc on state government and California society. And that’s just what the old progressive wanted.


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