Big spenders like the Koch brothers, George Soros, and Sheldon Adelson have been tossing millions of dollars to various presidential campaigns. But California has its own unique list of big spenders steering millions of dollars to November state ballot initiatives.
Initiatives are perplexing to most of us because they tend to be poorly written and even harder to understand.
Conceived by reformers about a century ago, these policy-making tools were originally designed to let the people to circumvent a state legislature in the grasp of special interests. It was called "direct democracy."
But over time special interests and wealthy individuals have hijacked the initiative process in a way that would make the reformers turn in their graves.
From the earliest moments of signature gathering to last minute television ads, big money in the hands of the few dominates the debate.
And it often works.
Some organizations are easily identified.
Unions, professional associations, business groups, anti-tax associations are often seen in the influence mix.
But wealthy individuals sometimes contribute sizable chunks of dough as well, and often they are not so easily identified or understood for their objectives.
According to Maplight, a nonpartisan organization that follows the flow of campaign dollars, here are some of the early big money givers to this November's propositions on the California ballot. The amounts of their contributions are impressive, given the relatively early point in the election season.
- George Joseph, the CEO of Mercury Insurance, has spent $8.2 million on Proposition 33, which would make it easier for automobile insurance companies to raise insurance rates. He backed a similar measure that failed in 2010.
- Molly Munger, supporter of Proposition 38, has spent $8.3 million attempting to gain voter approval of the measure, which would raise income taxes of almost all Californians, with the funds dedicated to public education.
- Hedge fund manager Tom Steyer has already spent $21.3 million promoting Proposition 39, which would change corporate tax rules to increase state revenues.
Dozens of other individuals are spending sizable amounts of money on the eleven ballot propositions to convince voters one way or the other.
It's clear that these mega-contributors have the right to do so. It's equally clear that the voters should know who these people are and what they hope to gain.
But there's so much money flowing from so many sources that the sheer volume is likely to overwhelm all but the most curious individuals.
All of which drives home an unfortunate reality: Somehow, "direct democracy" doesn't seem as "direct" or "democratic" as it was intended.
Larry Gerston teaches political science at San Jose State University and is the political analyst for NBC Bay Area.