Laws governing the initiative process in California

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Citizens in California may:
See also: List of California ballot propositions

Constitutional authority

Article II and Article XVIII of the California Constitution establish the right of voter initiative.

  • Section 10 of Article II establishes when approved initiatives go into effect, says what to do about conflicting initiatives on the same ballot, and gives the California State Legislature the authority to "provide the manner in which petitions shall be circulated, presented, and certified, and measures submitted to the electors."

Statutes governing the process

Under Section 10 of Article II, the California State Legislature has the constitutional authority to "provide the manner in which petitions shall be circulated, presented, and certified, and measures submitted to the electors."

The specific statutes that define the details of the process are located in a variety of different places in the California Election Code, including:

(Historical note: In 1990, tax activists tried unsuccessfully to pass Proposition 137, which would have required statewide voter approval of any statutes governing the initiative process.)


A national pro-initiative organization, the Citizens in Charge Foundation, produced a report card in 2010 that rates each of the 24 states that have the initiative process. In this report card, California was given a B+. According to the report, California's 150-day window for collecting signatures is unduly restrictive: "Petition sponsors need ample time to collect the (required number of) signatures needed to qualify, and California's short five-month period does not allow enough time."[1]

Steps in the process

Text of proposed law

The first step in the process of qualifying an initiated state statute or an initiated constitutional amendment for the ballot is to write the text of the proposed law. Proponents may seek assistance from the Legislative Counsel in drafting the measure. To do so, proponents must present the idea for the proposed new law and a request for a draft--signed by 25 or more electors--to the Legislative Counsel. If the Office of the Legislative Counsel determines that there is a reasonable chance that the proposed law will eventually be submitted to the voters, they will prepare a draft of the proposed law.[2]

Request for title

The draft of the proposed measure must then be submitted to the Attorney General, along with a written request that a ballot title and a summary of the proposition's chief points and purpose be prepared. According to Section 9002 of the California Elections Code, the title and summary cannot exceed 100 words. The proposition's proponents must pay the Attorney General a fee of $200 at this stage. (This fee is refunded if the initiative qualifies for the ballot.)[3]

The Attorney General provides the Secretary of State with a copy of this title and summary within 15 days of the receipt of the final version of the measure, unless its proponents submit amendments during this period, or unless a fiscal analysis is required, in which cases the deadline is extended.

Fiscal analysis

See also: California Legislative Analyst's Office

If the Attorney General determines that the measure requires a fiscal analysis, the Department of Finance and the Joint Legislative Budget Committee are asked to prepare an analysis within 25 working days from receipt of the final version of the proposed initiative. The fiscal analysis estimates the increase or decrease in revenues or costs to the state or local government.

If, in the opinion of the Department of Finance and the Joint Legislative Budget Committee, a reasonable estimate of the net impact of the proposed initiative cannot be prepared within the 25-day period, the Dept. of Finance and the Budget Committee shall instead, within the 25-day period, give the Attorney General their opinion on whether a substantial net change in state or local finances would result from adoption of the proposed initiative. The fiscal analysis is then included in the official summary. (If a fiscal estimate is required, the Attorney General shall prepare the title and summary within 15 days of receipt of the estimate.)

When the official summary is complete, the Attorney General sends it to the proponents, the Senate, the Assembly, and the Secretary of State.

Approval for circulation

Proponents may begin circulating petitions once they receive the official summary from the Attorney General. This usually happens in 30-45 days after first submitting the initiative. The Legislature may conduct public hearings on the proposed initiative, but it cannot amend it.

Along with an official summary, the proponents of any proposition also are given an official summary date from the Secretary of State. The official summary date is the date that the Secretary of State's office uses to calculate the unique set of filing deadlines that will apply to that particular proposition.

Petitions may not be circulated prior to their official summary date.

Circulation period

Proponents have 150 days from the date the official summary is issued to complete signature collection. Each qualified initiative is placed on the next statewide general or special election ballot that is not sooner than 131 days after the initiative qualifies. California signatures can be checked by random sampling or by a full count, depending on the outcome of the random sample check. If the signatures go to the full check method, more time is required. In 2008, for example, the deadline for submitting signatures for the November ballot was April 21. However, if a full check was required, the operative deadline was in February.[4]

Historical note: California permitted an unlimited time period for circulation of petitions until 1943.[5]

Signature filing

Sections 9030-9035 of the California Elections Code govern the process of filing signatures. Once signatures have been collected, they must be filed with the county elections officials in the county where they were collected. Some of the rules for signature filing are:

  • All the petition sections submitted in a single county must be filed at the same time.
  • Once filed, petitions may not be amended except by order of a court of competent jurisdiction.
  • Only the proponent(s) of an initiative measure, and persons authorized in writing by one or more of the proponents, may file initiative petitions.

Signature verification

List of propositions

Once the signatures are filed, county election officials have eight working days to:

  • Determine the total number of signatures submitted in their county.
  • Report the total to the Secretary of State.

Raw count

After the Secretary of State has collected reports from the counties around the state where signatures were filed, he or she must determine whether the raw count of signatures as provided by county officials adds up to at least 100% of the required number of signatures. If the raw count does not total the minimum number of required signatures, the Secretary of State is required to mmediately notify the appropriate county officials that the initiative has failed and that they need take no further action on it.

Random sample

If the raw count of signatures does equal 100% (or more) of the total number of signatures needed to qualify the proposition, the Secretary of State notifies county officials that they are to inspect some of the signatures in their care for validity within 30 working days. Specifically, the county officials are to use a random sampling procedure to choose the greater of 500 signatures or 3% of the signatures filed in their county; and they then must determine how many of those signatures are valid. (In counties where 500 or fewer signatures were submitted, the county must inspect all the signatures for validity.)

Once a county election department has inspected the required number of signatures, they are to report to the Secretary of State the percentage of valid signatures they discovered. For example, if a county inspects 500 signatures and determines that 400 of those signatures are valid, they would report that they had found a validity rate of 80%.

The 95%-110% rule

After the Office of the Secretary of State has collected information about validity rates from all counties where signatures were filed, the office applies a formula to determine the statewide total of valid signatures.

  • If this calculation determines that the number of valid signatures is less than 95% of the number of required signatures, the Secretary of State issues a "failure notice", which declares that the proposition has failed to qualify for the ballot.
  • If the calculation determines that the number of valid signatures is greater than 110% of the required number of signatures, the Secretary of State as per Section 9030 and 9033 determines that the proposition has qualified for the ballot "without further verification".

Full check

However, if the calculation by the Secretary of State determines that the number of valid signatures on the petition falls somewhere between 95%-110%, the Secretary of State then must direct election officials in counties where signatures were filed to inspect every single signature filed in their county for validity. This process if known as the "full check." County election officials are required to complete the full check within 30 working days of the time that they receive a notification from the Secretary of State saying they need to perform a full check.

Features of the process

Number of signatures

Main article: California signature requirements

In California, the number of signatures needed to qualify a measure for the ballot is based on the total number of votes cast for the office of Governor. For initiated constitutional amendments, petitioners must collect signatures equal to 8% of the most recent gubernatorial vote. To place a statute or veto referendum on the ballot, signatures equal to 5% of this vote are required.

Year Amendment Statute Veto referendum
2015-2018 585,407 365,880 365,880
2011-2014 807,615 504,760 504,760
2007-2010 694,354 433,971 433,971
2003-2006 598,105 373,816 373,816
1999-2002 670,816 419,260 419,260
1995-1998 693,230 433,269 433,269
1991-1994 615,958 384,974 384,974
1987-1990 595,485 372,178 372,178
1983-1986 630,135 393,835 393,835
1979-1982 553,790 346,119 346,119
1975-1978 499,846 312,404 312,404
1971-1974 520,806 325,504 325,504

DocumentIcon.jpg See law: California Constitution, Article II, Section 8 (b)

Signature verification

California signatures can be checked by random sampling or by a full count, depending on the outcome of the random sample check.

Distribution requirement

There is no distribution requirement in California.

Who can sign a petition?

A video produced by Californians Against Slavery explaining the state's petition circulation rules

In order to sign an initiative petition in California, these conditions must be met:

  • A person must be a registered, qualified voters at the time of signing are entitled to sign the petition.
  • Petition sheets are segregated by county. If a voter who is registered to vote in San Diego County signs a petition form designated for registered voters who live in Alameda County, the signature will not count.
  • If a petition circulator is a registered voter, he or she may sign the petition he or she is circulating.
  • Each signer must personally place on the petition his or her signature, printed name, residence address (or physical description of the location if there is no street address), and the name of the incorporated city or unincorporated community.
  • Each signer may sign an initiative petition only once (Section 18612).

Signature withdrawal

See also: Petition signature withdrawal

A voter who has signed a petition may withdraw his or her name by filing a written request for the withdrawal with the appropriate county elections official prior to the date the petition is filed by the initiative's proponents.

Single-subject rule

According to Section 8(d) of Article II of the California Constitution, California initiatives must conform to the single-subject rule. The relevant constitutional passage says, "An initiative measure embracing more than one subject may not be submitted to the electors or have any effect."

Legislative tampering

Main article: Legislative tampering

The California State Legislature cannot amend or repeal an initiative, unless doing so is explicitly permitted by the initiative. Of the 24 states with the right of initiative, California is the only state that doesn't let the Legislature amend or repeal citizen initiatives.[6]

The California Supreme Court decided People v. Kelly in January 2010, which exemplifies the state's strict prohibition on any kind of legislative tampering.

Effective date

According to Section 10(a) of Article II of the California Constitution, the effective date of ballot initiatives in California is the day after the election, unless the language of a specific ballot proposition says otherwise.

Conflicting initiatives

According to Section 10(b) of Article II of the California Constitution, if the provisions of two or more measures approved at the same election conflict, those of the measure receiving the highest affirmative vote prevail.

An example of two conflicting initiatives took place on June 3, 2008 when conflicting propositions 98 and 99 were on the same ballot.

Rules about circulators

Eligible to vote

Circulators must be eligible to vote in California, though they are not required to be registered to vote. [7] To be eligible to vote, an individual must:

  • Be a United States citizen
  • Be a resident of California
  • Be at least 18 years of age (or will be by the date of the next election)
  • Not be in prison or on parole for conviction of a felony
  • Not have been judged by a court to be mentally incompetent to register and vote [8]

Declaration of circulator

The petition sheets circulated in California are required to include a circulator affidavit that is "signed and dated by the circulator of the petition" that sets forth "in the circulator's own hand" this information:

  • The printed name of the circulator.
  • The residence address of the circulator, giving street and number, or if no street or number exists, adequate designation of residence so that the location may be readily ascertained.
  • A statement that the circulator is a voter or is qualified to register to vote in the State of California.
  • The dates between which all the signatures affixed to the petition were obtained.

The circulator affidavit must also say:

  • That the circulator circulated the petition section and witnessed the appended signatures being written.
  • That according to the best information and belief of the circulator, each signature is the genuine signature of the person whose name it purports to be.
  • That the declaration is true and correct under penalty of perjury under the laws of the State of California.

In contrast to a number of other states that require a circulator affidavit, the circulator's signature on the California affidavit does not have to be witnessed by a notary public.


A ballot proposition proponent is required "to ensure that any person, company, or other organization who solicits signatures to qualify the proposed initiative measure, whether they are paid or volunteer, receives instruction on the requirements and prohibitions imposed by state law with respect to the circulation of petitions and the gathering of signatures."[9]

Pre-printed dates

As per Assembly v. Deukmejian, the proponent or circulator is not allowed to use pre-printed dates or generalized dates on the petition.


Main article: Residency requirements for petition circulators

The status of a residency requirement in California is somewhat cloudy. In Preserve Shorecliff Homeowners v. City of San Clemente, a California appellate court said that a residency requirement in the California Election Code is unconstitutional.

General comments

The law specifies the format for the petition. The petition may be circulated by many different people carrying separate, identical parts of the petition called "sections."It is important to follow the prescribed format because the county elections officials will not accept nonconforming petitions for filing. Each section of the petition must contain the full title and text of the measure and each page on which signatures are to appear must contain a copy of the Attorney General's summary in Roman boldface type not smaller than 12-point. The petition must have room for the signature of each petition signer as well as his or her printed name, residence address and community name. Signature spaces must be consecutively numbered commencing with the number 1 for each petition section. A minimum one-inch space shall be left at the top of each page and after each name for use by the county elections official. Pursuant to the Supreme Court's decision in Assembly v. Deukmejian, the petition form must direct signers to include their "residence address" rather than "address as registered" or other address. Non-complying petition forms will be rejected as invalid. Additionally, each section of the petition must contain the name of the county (or city and county) in which it was circulated. Each section shall be circulated among voters of only one county and may be circulated only by registered voters.

Assigning numbers to propositions

California's ballot measures appear on the ballot with the word "Proposition" followed by a number or a number-and-letter combination.

Three different systems have been used to assign the number that each ballot proposition will be identified by on the ballot.

  • Up through November 1982, proposition numbers started with “1” for each election, including times when more than one election took place in a year. This meant that there would be two "Proposition 1"s, and so on, on the ballot in a year that more than one ballot measure election took place.
  • Starting in November 1982, ballot propositions were numbered sequentially from year-to-year so that with each successive election so that, for example, 1984 started with Proposition 16 and ended with Proposition 41, while 1986 started with Proposition 42, and so on, with no limit on high the numbers could go. By 1998, the numbering had gone to Proposition 227.
  • In November 1998, proposition numbers restarted with “1”, with the count to be re-set to "1" every ten years, or in November of each election year ending with an "8".[10]

Proposed changes

See also: Criticisms of California's ballot initiative process

Filing fees

Changes in 2010 to laws governing ballot measures

Lori Saldana proposed a bill in the 2010 state legislative session that would raise the filing fee over a six-year period from $200 to $2,000.[3]

Ballot titles, 2009

Democrats propose restrictions

Main article: Changes in 2009 to laws governing the initiative process
  • California Assembly Bill 6 (2009). Proposed by Lori Saldana, AB 6 would require firms that hire signature gatherers to qualify state or local initiatives for the ballot to pay an annual fee and register with the secretary of state. AB 6 would also require these firms to provide a training program for signature gatherers on state laws regarding the initiative process and submit proof of such training to the secretary of state.[12]
  • California Assembly Bill 426 (2009). Proposed by Lori Saldana, AB 426 would "incrementally increases the current fee that proponents of an initiative measure are required to pay at the time of submitting the draft of the measure to the Attorney General from $200 to $2,000."[12]
  • California Assembly Bill 1068 (2009). Proposed by Lori Saldana, AB 1068 "provides that a contract for circulating a petition or collecting signatures for a proposed state or local initiative, referendum, or recall measure that is to be submitted to voters is void if it makes payment to any person under the contract contingent upon the measure being qualified for the ballot."[12]

Ballot measure funds, 2009

The Fair Political Practices Commission is considering a set of new rules to govern how politicians can raise and spend money for ballot measures. Currently, politicians can raise money for ballot measure funds, but do not have to spend the money in ballot measure campaign accounts specifically for ballot measures. Ross Johnson, the FPPC's chairman, thinks this creates the potential for abuse, referring to the funds as "open-ended slush funds".[16],[17]

Center for Governmental Studies

Robert Stern of the Center for Governmental Studies in 2008 proposed a series of changes to California's existing initiative laws. These changes include:

  • Limit to $100,000 what any one person or corporation can give to an initiative committee.
  • Limit to $10,000 all contributions to initiative committees controlled by politicians.
  • Extend the time limit for qualifying initiatives to a year.
  • Allow the Legislature to review all initiatives that qualify for the ballot, then suggest changes which could be accepted or not by sponsors. The sponsors would have the choice of proceeding with either their original measure or a revised one.[18],[19]

Democratic Party, 2008

An Initiative Reform Task Force met during the California Democratic Party's November 2008 meeting to propose changes in California's initiative process. The recommendations made by the task force include:

  • Creating a statewide "watch network" to analyze and distribute information about initiatives as soon as their ballot language is filed with the state, before the signature-collection phase.
  • The "watch network" would then distribute these findings "widely on the internet through both websites and email networks. This requires no action by the legislature. It requires grassroots activists to join together and become researchers and bloggers who assemble and disseminate information about the propositions that are about to enter the pipeline."[20]

Recommendations for legislative change in the initiative process made by the group include:

  • All initiatives be voted on only in general elections.
  • For a constitutional amendment to pass, it must be submitted to the voters in two successive general elections, and must receive 2/3rds of the vote in each election.
  • Limit the number of initiatives on each ballot.
  • Institute a waiting period after an initiative has been certified for the ballot as having collected sufficient signatures during which the California State Legislature may act.
  • Require paid signature gatherers to wear a large button or sign that discloses who is paying them.
  • Require that the entire language of the measure be on each signature page, or that to each citizen be given a copy that must be read PRIOR to signing the petition.
  • History of all previous bond issues with dates and recipients to be prominently disclosed on an initiative involving a bond for the same entity.

The Initiative Reform Task Force includes members from the Progressive Democrats of Los Angeles, the Courage Campaign, the Pacific Palisades and Santa Monica Democratic Clubs, Valley Democrats United, and Westside Progressives.[20]

Speaker's Commission, 2001

In 2001, Speaker of the California Assembly Robert Hertzberg put together a commission to study the state's initiative process and make recommendations. The commission produced a 37-page report.[21]

Changes over time

Up until 1966, when voters approved California Proposition 1A (1966), the initiative process in California was indirect.[22]

Campaign finance requirements

See also: Campaign finance requirements for California ballot measures
  • California defines a group of individuals in support or opposition of a ballot measure as a committee, a group led by an elected official as a controlled committee, and a group that send direct mail to defeat four or more ballot measures as a slate mailer committee.
  • California has strict laws on how groups can spend funds in the effort to support or defeat a referendum.
  • There is an optional expenditure limit with the California Secretary of State.
  • California has a law against slander and libel in campaign advertisements.

Relevant legal cases

External links


  1. Fresno Bee, "Pro-ballot initiative group gives California a B+ on process", April 12, 2010
  2. Office of the Legislative Counsel
  3. 3.0 3.1 Associated Press, "Calif. eyes fee hike to file ballot initiatives", April 5, 2010
  4. Suggested initiative deadlines from the California Secretary of State
  5. Democracy By Initiative p. 131
  6. Contra Costa Times, "Questions raised about ballot measures", November 20, 2008
  7. California Secretary of State's Initiative Guide
  8. CA SOS Who May Register To Vote
  9. California Initiative Guide
  10. Numbering California ballot propositions
  11. Rocklin Today, "AB 319 will reduce misleading information for ballot initiatives", February 26, 2009
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 12.3 12.4 California Catholic Daily, "Death by a thousand cuts", June 16, 2009
  13. Ballot Access News, "California Legislative Hearing on Bill to Ban Paying Circulators Per Signature", July 6, 2009
  14. Text of SB 34
  15. Los Angeles Weekly, "Arnold vetoes initiative ban: Sleazy effort by California legislature to hamstring signature-gathering", October 12, 2009
  16. Sacramento Bee, "FPPC targets ballot campaign accounts", January 15, 2009
  17. Fresno Bee, "Politicians find ways to conceal donors", January 19, 2009
  18. Hollister Free Lance, "Time for initiative to fix initiatives", July 22, 2008
  19. San Francisco Chronicle, "Initiative reform has losts its way", July 27, 2008
  20. 20.0 20.1 Calitics, "Change California's Initiative Process Now!", November 30, 2008
  21. The Speaker's Commission on the California Initiative Process, June 27, 2001
  22. KQED, "2010: Year of CA Government Reform?", September 10, 2009


Preparation of the initial version of this article was assisted by the California guide provided by the Initiative & Referendum Institute.