History of Initiative and Referendum in California

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Californians adopted the initiative process on October 10, 1911, becoming the tenth state to adopt this form of direct democracy.[1]

Three initiatives were on the California ballot the next year, in 1912, when measures 6, 7 and 8 -- to consolidate local governments, prohibit bookmaking, and set procedures for local taxation -- were all defeated.

Through November 2014, 364 initiatives have qualified for the statewide California ballot. Voters have approved 123, an approval rate of 34 percent. From 1911 through November 2014, the California Constitution has been amended 52 times through the state's initiative process.[2][3]

However, the history of initiative and referendum in California began long before this method of creating legislation was ratified on October 10, 1911.

The California Direct Legislation League

A Philadelphian who held doctorates in both medicine and philosophy, Dr. John Haynes moved west to Los Angeles in 1887, at the age of 34. He established a successful medical practice, counting many prominent Southern Californians among his patients, invested his profits skillfully in real estate, and eventually became a millionaire.[4][5]

In 1895, Haynes helped found the California branch of the Direct Legislation League, dedicated to winning the rights of initiative, referendum, and recall both statewide and in every local jurisdiction.[6]

Local initiative & referendum

He won election in 1900 to a Los Angeles "board of freeholders" responsible for drafting a new charter for that city. Haynes used this strategic position to make sure that the board included initiative and referendum (I&R) in the new charter, only to see the entire charter thrown out by the courts on a technicality. A new board, without Haynes, was elected in 1902, but he continued to advocate I&R and brought Eltweed Pomeroy of New Jersey, president of the National Direct Legislation League, from the east coast specifically to address the board. After Pomeroy's speech, the board voted to include initiative, referendum, and recall in the new charter. Voters ratified the charter in 1903.

Statewide initiative and referendum

After accomplishing the placement of I&R in his local charter, Haynes turn his attention to gaining statewide I&R. The odds against him were daunting. The entire state government had for decades been under the control of the Southern Pacific Railroad. Bribery was the accepted method of doing business in the state capitol. Realizing the hopelessness of dealing with the current officeholders, Haynes and other reformers began a campaign to get rid of them and remake state government from top to bottom. In May of 1907, they founded the Lincoln-Roosevelt League of Republican Clubs, and elected several of their candidates to the state legislature. Once elected, these legislators worked for a bill to require the nomination of party candidates through primary election rather than the backroom deals of state party conventions.

Taking back the legislature

The bill passed, and the League's 1910 gubernatorial candidate, Hiram Johnson, ran in the state's first primary election. Johnson won the primary and the general election and swept dozens of other reformers into the legislature on his political coattails.

Johnson and the new Progressive majority in the legislature made the most sweeping governmental changes ever seen in the history of California. Among these were the introduction of initiative, referendum, and recall at both the state and local levels. Voters ratified these amendments in a special election on October 10, 1911.

1911 to Present

List of propositions

Free Speech

Reformers in Los Angeles won voter approval, in December 1911, of a unique local initiative to create a municipally owned, yet editorially independent, newspaper to compete with the anti-labor, anti-reform Los Angeles Times and provide unbiased news and an equal forum for all political views. Each political party was given a column in every weekly edition.

This bold experiment in free speech attracted the state's top newspaper talent and got off to a highly successful start. After less than a year, however, it failed because of the harassment of vendors and an advertiser boycott organized by the Los Angeles reformers' arch-enemy, Harrison Gray Otis, owner of the Times.

Anti-initiative forces

The first significant statewide initiative in California abolished the poll tax in 1914, and a construction bond initiative for the University of California also won voter approval that year. Immediately thereafter, anti-initiative forces launched their first counterattack, in the form of a constitutional amendment passed by the legislature to make it more difficult to pass initiative bond proposals. Haynes mobilized his pro-initiative forces and defeated the amendment at the polls in 1915.

Anti-initiative forces tried again in 1920; this time using the initiative process themselves to propose a measure that would have made it virtually impossible to put any tax-related initiatives on future ballots. Haynes mobilized his forces again and defeated the measure at the polls; and he won a third, similar contest in 1922. After this he changed the name of his California Direct Legislation League to "The League to Protect the Initiative," and for the rest of his life kept close watch over the legislature to make sure that it enacted no laws to restrict I&R procedures. Haynes died on October 30, 1937, at the age of 84.

Law enforcement initiatives

On the ballot in 1934 were four successful constitutional initiatives to revamp the state's law enforcement and criminal justice systems. All four were sponsored by Alameda County District Attorney Earl Warren, who went on to become the state's attorney general in 1938, its governor in 1942, and the Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court in 1953. The principal changes involved procedures for judicial selection and retention, and increasing the woefully inadequate powers and jurisdiction of the office of attorney general. Warren's foresight in revamping the justice system before running for attorney general accounted in no small measure for his effectiveness once elected, which in turn made possible his rise to higher office.


Chart of the number of ballot propositions on the California each decade
  • 1943: The cost of submitting proposed language to election officials for a ballot title and summary was set at $200.[7]
  • 1960: Ballot propositions, once confined to the November ballot, are now also placed on California's June primary ballot.[8]
  • 1984: The first year that statewide ballot propositions were numbered sequentially based on numbers from previous years. In 1982 and earlier, measures on the ballot in June started with "Proposition 1," as did the numbers on the ballot in November. This resulted in a situation where a "Proposition 1," and so on, would be on the ballot in June and a different Proposition 1, and so on, would be on the November ballot.
  • 2011: Jerry Brown signs SB 202, which ends the practice begun in 1960 of voting on ballot propositions in June primary elections.[8]

Signature requirements

California signature requirements

Each decade for the first half of this century, the number of signatures required to put a statewide initiative on the ballot roughly doubled. It was set at 8 percent of the number of votes cast in the previous gubernatorial election. In 1911 this was 30,481 signatures; in 1930, it was 91,529; in 1939, it was 212,117. The rapid change was due to California's explosive population growth and the increasing participation of women as voters. As petition requirements increased, the number of initiatives qualifying for the ballot decreased, particularly in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s.

High stakes spending

One of the highest stakes initiative campaigns in terms of campaign spending was in 1956, over a struggle over changes in the state regulation and taxation of oil and gas production. Proposition 4 that year was sponsored by a group of oil companies that sought to make their business more profitable, and opposed by another group of oil firms that preferred the existing system. Campaign funds spent by both sides totaled over $5 million. Proposition 4 lost: California voters, inundated with conflicting claims about a complex measure, took the cautious route and voted "no."

Almost as expensive was the gargantuan 1958 labor-capital conflict over a "Right to Work" (open shop) initiative sponsored by employers. This battle ended in a double defeat for employers: not only did voters decisively reject the initiative, but the opposition campaign mobilized Democrats and union members to vote in droves, resulting in the election of Governor Edmund G. Brown, Sr., the first Democrat to occupy that office in 16 years.

In the 1960s, California liberals soured on the initiative process as a result of two measures passed by voters in 1964. The first, Proposition 14, repealed the Rumford Fair Housing Act, which the California State Legislature had passed, and Governor Brown had signed, in 1963. The second, Proposition 15, banned cable television. That measure was sponsored by theater owners who, fearing competition, advertised the initiative as guaranteeing "free television" and eliminating the specter of "pay television." Both 1964 initiatives were later overturned by the courts as unconstitutional.

The California initiative process gave rise to a new breed of campaign professional: the paid petition circulator. With signature requirements doubling nearly every decade, citizen groups were unable to rely solely on volunteer effort. As early as World War I, Joseph Robinson was offering his organizing services to initiative proponents. His firm, which paid its employees a fee for each signature brought in, had a virtual monopoly on the petition business from 1920 to 1948 - a period during which, Robinson estimated, his firm was involved in 98 percent of the successful statewide initiative petition drives. Robinson stayed in business into the late 1960s, when he offered his services to Ed and Joyce Koupal, but by then he had competitors.

Prop 13

One of California's most famous initiatives was Prop 13. "On June 6th, 1978, nearly two-thirds of California's voters passed Proposition 13, reducing the state's property tax by about 57%. Prior to Proposition 13 property taxes were out of control. People were losing their homes because they could not pay their property taxes. Yet, government did nothing to help them. In the finest tradition of the Boston Tea Party, California taxpayers stood up and said no more to excessive taxes. The Proposition 13 Revolution swept the country and made headlines around the world. It began a change of thinking about the tax burden taxpayers had to bear. Proposition 13 also started a revolution in the people turning to the initiative process to gain a greater control over their lives." The above account, provided by the Jarvis Taxpayers Association, points out correctly that the modern day movement to utilize the initiative process was brought about by the passage of Prop 13.

In the last decade, Californians lead the nation in numerous reform efforts utilizing the initiative process including term limits, ending bilingual education, adopting animal protection laws, ending racial preferences, and adopting one of the most comprehensive drug reform measures in the country. This has lead to elected officials across the country vilifying the initiative process and have used the rhetoric “we don’t want to be like California” as their rallying cry in opposing the initiative process. They are concerned that the reforms adopted in California would come to their states – even though these are the reforms wanted by the people. However, Californians still overwhelmingly support the initiative process and have no desire for it to be abolished.

"Ballot-box budgeting"

In 2009, California's tax revenues declined. This led to a multi-billion budget gap. Several politicians and pundits blamed the problem on California's initiatives. California State Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg denounced ballot-box budgeting. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said, "All of those propositions tell us how we must spend our money...This is no way, of course, to run a state.[10]

John G. Matsusaka, president of the Initiative & Referendum Institute, conducted a study in 2003 which "found that no more than a third of California's appropriations that year were locked in by voter initiatives so stringent that legislators couldn't override them. Most of the appropriations—about $30 billion in 2003—were for Proposition 98, which passed in 1988 and mandates funding for K-12 education."[10]

Leaving Prop 98 to one side, "only about 2% or 3% of California's budget is frozen as a result of ballot initiatives."[10]

The California Legislative Analyst's Office also looked at the restrictions imposed on the state's budget by various factors and concluded, "Despite these restrictions, the legislature maintains considerable control over the state budget—particularly over the longer term."[10]

See also

External links


This article is significantly based on an article[11] published by the Initiative & Referendum Institute, and is used with their permission. Their article, in turn, relies on research in David Schmidt's book, Citizen Lawmakers: The Ballot Initiative Revolution.[12]