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Direct Democracy in Action

created May 25, 2016 11:33 AM

Note:  The following article is excerpted from the May 2016 edition of Teach the Election, "Initiatives, Recalls, and Referendums."  For the full issue (and all other issues), subscribe to the Teach the Election series.

by Shelley Brooks

The ballot initiative has drawn praise and condemnation in California, for through this process voters exert great influence over California’s political landscape. Ballot initiatives allow citizens to design potential legislation (such as limits on legislators’ terms in office) to be put before the electorate. It is precisely this sort of significant political influence that progressives sought in 1911 when, under progressive Governor Hiram Johnson, the California legislature adopted a state constitutional amendment that allowed for the ballot initiative. Focused on addressing political corruption at a time when many saw state legislators as too cozy with big business, California progressives found great popularity during the early years of the twentieth century. Progressives strove to put more political power in the hands of the average citizen to enact laws that responded to the interests of “the people.” But some questions that Californians are forced to revisit nearly every election cycle include: what does it mean for “the people” to pass laws through the initiative process? Who pays for it? Who benefits from it?

California was the tenth state to adopt the direct initiative, and is today one of fourteen states that allows for the direct citizen participation in the lawmaking process. In order to qualify an initiative for the ballot, proponents must gather a sufficient number of voter signatures indicating support for the issue. Currently, the required number of signatures is 365,880 for a typical initiative, or 585,407 for an initiative that would create an amendment to the state constitution. By late May 2016, four statewide ballot measures have already qualified for the June 7th presidential primary election and the November 8th general election. These include a proposition requiring a two-thirds vote in the respective chamber of the state legislature in order to suspend a state legislator (Proposition 50 on the June 7, 2016 ballot); a referendum to overturn the statewide ban on single-use plastic bags (The ban was approved by the state legislature and signed by Gov. Brown in 2014 but put on hold because of the qualified referendum petition. If the referendum is successful, it will not invalidate the local bans that many cities and counties have put in place) (Proposition 1660 on the November ballot); a senate bill to amend the Education Code in relation to English language acquisition programs (SB 1174 on the November ballot); and a proposition regarding how hospital fees are set by the state in order to help match federal Medicaid funding and how that federal funding is allocated (Proposition 1613 on the November ballot). It appears that an additional measure is poised to make it onto the ballot – a proposition to make recreational marijuana legal for adults.

Through the initiative process, Californians have enacted extremely influential legislation over the years, including a 1978 limit on property taxes and an initiative that created the California Coastal Commission. Changing laws through statewide ballot initiatives is not a sure way to bring about change, however. In the 100+ years since the initiative began in California, close to 2,000 statewide initiatives have been titled and circulated for petition to be eligible to be placed on the ballot, but only 363 initiatives have qualified for the ballot. Of this smaller number, only 123 initiatives were approved by voters and adopted into California law. While this is a small success rate, it does reflect regular voter input over the past century in the creation of statewide legislation. In addition, the initiative exists at the county and city level as well, with measures designed to impact that particular jurisdiction (such as zoning and land use). Local initiatives are most common in California’s large and growing urban areas where there is a fair amount of income diversity. These variables make it less likely that local representatives can anticipate the varied needs of their constituents, thereby resulting in a high number of citizen-proposed measures.

Over the years the ballot initiative has created an industry unto itself in California. Proponents of an initiative often hire trained consultants to create slogans and campaigns in hopes of increasing the likelihood of success. This requires substantial money, however – an issue that some progressives voiced back in 1911 out of concern that the large number of signatures required on a ballot petition would favor special interest groups that had the means to coordinate such an effort. Certainly special interest groups have found success through the initiative, leading some to argue that the original intent of the ballot initiative – to give “the people” a voice in the law making process – has been compromised. Nevertheless, during each general election we see evidence of California voters taking an active role in the governance of their state.