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Changes that have been proposed to California's ballot initiative process

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Proposed changes

Joe Mathews

Joe Mathews of Blockbuster Democracy says, "California's system is deeply flawed."[1]

He recommends four changes:

  • "Make initiatives subject to the same rules as legislation."[1]
  • "Extend the same flexibility to constitutional revisions as constitutional amendments."
  • Permit the Legislature more involvement with the initiative process.
  • Make it easier for voters to overturn the Legislature through a more referendum-based direct democracy.[1]

Thomas Elias

Thomas Elias agrees with a bill that passed the California State Senate in May 2010 saying the idea "has a lot of merit and just might stand up to the court scrutiny it would inevitably receive if passed." The bill would require paid circulators to wear a badge that says "Paid Signature Gatherer," and would also say where (and if) the circulator is registered to vote.[2]

Steven Hill

Steven Hill, the author of "Europe's Promise: Why the European Way is the Best Hope in an Insecure Age," participated in IRI Europe's Briefing Tour to Switzerland, June 10-15 (2010).

His proposed reforms include:

  • Reducing the number of signatures required to qualify a measure for the ballot, and expanding the amount of time allowed for signature collection: "But a key reason this dynamic works is because the Swiss only require about 100,000 signatures for an initiative — a bit more than 1 percent of the population — and 50,000 for a referendum. The Swiss also allow a longer period of time for collecting those signatures, up to 18 months, compared to only five months in California. So non-wealthy interests can use the I&R process and signatures can be gathered with all-volunteer labor."[3]
  • " media time should be provided for all significant viewpoints."
  • "...shared financing for all campaigns, pro and con, should be considered; all campaigns would be required to pay 15 percent of the amount they spend on their own campaign into a common fund that is distributed to the underfunded campaigns."

Tom Harman

Tom Harman, a Republican state legislator from Huntington Beach, believes that the Attorney General of California should be legally required to defend any voter-approved initiative or constitutional amendment in court if a lawsuit is filed against it: "As an expression of the people's will, initiative statutes should be shown deference by California's elected officials and zealously defended when challenged in court" Harman expected to introduce legislation called the "Ballot Box Defense Act" in pursuit of this goal. He is said to be motivated by the fact that Jerry Brown, when he was the Attorney General of California, declined to defend the voter-approved Proposition 8 in court.[4]


Ronald George

See also: California Chief Justice Ronald George condemns ballot initiatives

Ronald George, the chief justice of the California Supreme Court, condemned California's tradition of ballot initiatives on October 10 in a speech to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.[5] George said that the state's voters have "rendered our state government dysfunctional."[5]

In his speech, George paid particular attention to some aspects of the process that he thinks are particularly dysfunctional. Those are:

  • California voters have limited “how elected officials may raise and spend revenue."
  • Voters have placed "California’s lawmakers, and the state itself" in "a fiscal straitjacket by a steep two-thirds-vote requirement" for raising taxes.
  • He said, "Much of this constitutional and statutory structure has been brought about not by legislative fact-gathering and deliberation, but rather by the approval of voter initiative measures, often funded by special interests. These interests are allowed under the law to pay a bounty to signature-gatherers for each signer. Frequent amendments — coupled with the implicit threat of more in the future — have rendered our state government dysfunctional, at least in times of severe economic decline.”[6]
  • George also rebuked the state's voters for approving Proposition 8.

William Gross

William Gross, who runs Pimco, the world's largest mutual bond fund, wrote in September 2009 in opposition to the state's initiative process. He said, "The state's laws are almost tragically shaped by a form of direct democracy. Propositions from conservatives and liberals alike have locked up much of the budget, with Proposition 13 in 1978 reducing property taxes by 57% and Proposition 98 in 1988 requiring 40% of the general fund to be spent on schools. Recently, much of any excess has been gobbled not only by teachers, but unbelievably by a prison lobby that would be the envy of any on Washington's K Street."[7]

Popular support for

A July 2010 poll by Public Policy Polling asked the question, "Do you think Californians should keep the right to vote on ballot propositions, or should props be eliminated from the California ballot?"[8] The poll found:

  • In favor of keeping ballot propositions: 74%
  • In favor of eliminating ballot propositions: 13%

A November 2010 poll by the Public Policy Institute of California indicated that the state's voters have more confidence in state's voter initiative system than they do in the California State Legislature.[9]

According to the PPIC poll:

  • 33% of voters in the state have either "a great deal" or "a fair amount" of trust and confidence "in the ability of the state's elected officials to craft public policy."
  • 44% said they trust voters to enact policy by voting on ballot measures.

PPIC president Mark Baldassare said, "The job that the voters have in making public policy at the ballot box is a very complicated one, and one that's become quite burdensome, but they value doing that because they hold the elected officials in such low esteem." Baldassare also said, "They feel that the initiative process gives them an opportunity to weigh in on public policy in an environment in which they have little trust and confidence in our representative democracy."[10]

See also


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