Laws governing the initiative process in California
| Initiative law|
Ballot access rulings
Recent court cases
Ballot title challenges
| Laws governing|
local ballot measures
Citizens of California may initiate legislation as either a state statute or a constitutional amendment. In California, citizens also have the power to repeal legislation via veto referendum. The California State Legislature may also place measures on the ballot as legislatively-referred constitutional amendments or legislatively-referred state statutes. Referred amendments require a 2/3 vote of each chamber.
Crafting an initiative
Of the 24 states that allow citizens to initiate legislation through the petition process, several states have adopted restrictions and regulations that limit the scope and content of proposed initiatives. These regulations may include laws that mandate that initiatives address only one topic, restrict the range of acceptable topics for proposed laws, prohibit unfunded mandates, and establish guidelines for adjudicating contradictory measures.
- See also: Single-subject rule
In California, each proposed measure must address only one subject.
- See also: Subject restrictions (ballot measures)
In California, an initiated measure may not apply differently to different political subdivisions (cities, counties, etc...) based on the approval/disapproval of the measure in those subdivisions. Similarly, a measure may not treat subdivisions differently based on the percentage of voters approving or disapproving of the measure.
More generally, a measure may not make any of its provisions dependent on a certain percentage of voters approving or disapproving of the measure.
If two or more measures conflict, the measure receiving the greatest number of affirmative votes supersedes the other. This provision was clarified in Taxpayers to Limit Campaign Spending v. Fair Political Practices Commission (1990). The court determined that:
- When two or more measures are competing initiatives, either because they are expressly offered as "all-or-nothing" alternatives or because each creates a comprehensive regulatory scheme related to the same subject, section 10(b) mandates that only the provisions of the measure receiving the highest number of affirmative votes be enforced.
The court argued that combining initiatives piecemeal could lead to outcomes unintended by voters. A notable example of such unintended consequences occurred in Oregon in 1908.
Starting a petition
Each initiative and referendum state employs a different procedure for filing petition applications. Some states require preliminary signatures while others do not. In addition, several states review each proposed statute, verifying that the law conforms to the style and conventions of state law and recommending alterations to initiative proponents. Some of these of these states also review the law for more substantive considerations of content and consistency. Also, many states conduct a review of the ballot title and summary, and several states employ a fiscal review process which analyzes proposed laws to determine their impact on state finances.
Applying to petition
- See also: Approved for circulation
Prior to circulation, proponents must submit the full text of the measure to the California Attorney General's Initiative Coordinator along with a request for a summary, contact information, a signed statement certifying that the proponents are qualified electors, and a $200 deposit, refundable upon qualification for the ballot. They must also sign and submit a statement promising not to use the signatures for any purpose except the initiative.
- An example of a petition application can be found here. (Certifying statements are not included.)
- See also: Approved for circulation
Proponents may seek the assistance of the Office of the Legislative Counsel in drafting the measure prior to filing it with the Attorney General. In order to receive assistance, they must submit 25 signatures from qualified electors. In addition, the office must determine that there is a "reasonable probability" that the measure will qualify for the ballot.
- See also: Ballot measure summary statement
Once proponents have submitted all the required materials, the Attorney General must draft a brief (100 word) circulating title and summary. He or she must also assign the measure a unique identifying number. This number is not the same as its number on the ballot. The Attorney General has 15 days to complete the petition language. This period begins after the measure has received a fiscal statement (when applicable).
Once the measure has been submitted, sponsors may submit amendments to their proposal before the summary is prepared. These amendments restart the 15-day period and must include a new summary/title request signed by all proponents. Technical or non-substantive changes do not restart the 15-day period.
- A sample petition can be found here.
- A list of recent measures cleared for circulation can be found here. (Includes petition language)
- See also: Fiscal impact statement
If the measure will have a fiscal impact, a fiscal estimate is drafted jointly by the Department of Finance and the Joint Legislative Budget Committee. This estimate is included along with the summary and circulating title.
- A list of recent measures cleared for circulation can be found here. (Includes fiscal estimates)
Each initiative and referendum state employs a unique method of calculating the state's signature requirements. Some states mandate a certain fraction of registered voters while others base their calculation on those who actually voted in a preceding election. In addition, many states employ a distribution requirement, dictating where in the state these signatures must be collected. Beyond these overarching requirements, many states regulate the manner in which signatures may be collected and the timeline for collecting them.
- See also: 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.
- See also: Distribution requirements
There is no distribution requirement in California. As such, any proportion of the required signatures may be collected from any county or congressional district.
Restrictions on circulators
- See also: Pay-per-signature
California does not prohibit paying circulators by the signature. In 2011, the California State Legislature passed Senate Bill 168 which would have instituted such a ban, but the bill was vetoed by Gov. Jerry Brown.
California requires signature gatherers to be qualified state voters and, thus, residents.
- See also: Badge requirements
In California, each petition must carry the following notice, "THIS PETITION MAY BE CIRCULATED BY A PAID SIGNATURE GATHERER OR A VOLUNTEER. YOU HAVE THE RIGHT TO ASK." However, circulators are not required to volunteer their paid/unpaid status.
- See also: Electronic petition signatures
Since electronic signatures are an emerging technology, the constitutionality of bans on e-signatures and the legality of e-signatures in states without bans is largely untested. However, in June 2011, the California First District Court of Appeals issued a ruling in Ni v. Slocum prohibiting electronic signature collection in California. Verafirma founder Michael Ni filed the suit, challenging San Mateo County's rejection of an electronic signature in favor of Proposition 19. In its decision, the court ruled that the term "affix," as used in California law, implies a physical signature.
Deadlines for collection
Once petition sponsors have received the summary from the Attorney General, they have 150 days to collect signatures and file their petitions. If sufficient signatures have been gathered, the measure is presented to voters at the next general election at least 131 days after the measure is certified for the ballot.
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 require a full check, the verification process will take additional time. 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. Given the uncertainties involved in the verification process, sponsors in California must allow time for the process as they plan their initiative campaign. 
Getting on the ballot
Once signatures have been collected, state officials must verify that requirements are met and that fraudulent signatures are excluded. States generally employ a random sample process or a full verification of signatures. After verification, the issue must be prepared for the ballot. This often involves preparing a fiscal review and ballot summary.
- See also: Signature certification
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.
Once the signatures are filed, county election officials have eight working days to determine the total number of signatures submitted in their county and report the total to the Secretary of State. If the raw, statewide count is equal to 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 verify a random sample of their signatures within 30 working days. Specifically, the county officials are to randomly select 500 signatures or 3% of the signatures, whichever is greater. (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 must report the percentage of valid signatures to the Secretary of State. After the Secretary of State's office has collected information about validity rates from all counties where signatures were filed, the office projects the total number of valid signatures based on the random sample.
- 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 certifies that the proposition has qualified for the ballot "without further verification".
- However, if the calculation determines that the number of valid signatures on the petition falls somewhere between 95%-110%, the Secretary of State instructs county election officials to inspect each signature filed in their county. This process if known as a "full check." County election officials are required to complete the check within 30 working days of being notified by the Secretary of State.
Ballot title and summary
- See also: Ballot title
Once a petition has been found sufficient, the Secretary of State directs the Attorney General to draft a ballot title, summary, and ballot label. The ballot title and summary may differ from those used during circulation. The ballot title and summary are accompanied by a condensed fiscal impact statement prepared by the Legislative Analyst and reviewed by a citizen panel for readability. The ballot label is, in turn, a condensed (less than 75 words) version of the title, summary, and fiscal statement.
Since the ballot language is also included in the state's voter pamphlet, it is subject to a 20-day public display period during which the public may challenge the ballot language.
In addition, each measure receives ballot arguments for and against. These arguments can be drafted by proponents, citizen groups, and individuals. The Secretary of State selects the official arguments from among those submitted. Priority is given to arguments based on their author(s)--first to proponents, second to citizen groups, and third to individuals. Once arguments have been selected, their authors draft rebuttals to the opposing arguments.
- An example of state ballot language can be found here.
- An example of ballot arguments can be found here.
The election and beyond
Ballot measures face additional challenges beyond qualifying for the ballot and receiving a majority of the vote. Several states require ballot measures to get more than a simple majority. While some states mandate a 3/5 supermajority, others states set the margin differently. In addition, ballot measures may face legal challenge or modification by legislators. If a ballot measure does fail, some states limit how soon that initiative can be re-attempted.
- See also: Supermajority requirements
California ballot measures require only a simply majority of the votes cast for or against them.
In California, approved measures take effect on the day after the election unless otherwise specified by the measure.
- See also: Ballot measure lawsuit news
Challenges to the ballot language for a measure should be filed in Sacramento County District Court.
- See also: Legislative tampering
The California State Legislature may not amend or repeal an approved measure without submitting the change to voters. However, a ballot measure may include a clause waiving this protection.
Once ballot measures are certified for the ballot, they are submitted to the legislature. The legislature has no control over the measure or whether it appears on the ballot. However, California law requires the legislature to hold public hearing on the measures at least 30 days prior to the election.
Re-attempting an initiative
California does not limit how soon an initiative can be re-attempted.
Funding an initiative campaign
Some of the notable features of California 's campaign finance laws include:
- 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.
State initiative law
Article II of the California Constitution addresses initiatives.
Division 9 of the California Elections Code governs initiatives.
- California Secretary of State, Official Voter Information Guide
- California Secretary of State, Ballot Measures Information
- California Secretary of State, "How to Qualify an Initiative"
- Taxpayers to Limit Campaign Spending v. Fair Political Practices Commission, Opinion, November 1, 1990
- NCSL, "Drafting the Initiative Proposal," Accessed May 19, 2011
- NCSL, "Preparation of a Fiscal Analysis," Accessed May 19, 2011
- NCSL, "Preparation of a Ballot Title and Summary," Accessed May 19, 2011
- Metropolitan News-Enterprise, "C.A. Rejects Bid to Count Online Signature on Initiative Petition," July 5, 2011
- Ballot Access News, "California State Court of Appeals Construes Election Code to Bar Electronic Signatures on Petitions," July 1, 2011
- Ballot Access News, "Electronic Signatures on Petitions Case Argued in California State Court of Appeals," May 10, 2011
- Mercury News, "Attention, voters. You better start practicing your e-signature," May 7, 2010
- Suggested initiative deadlines from the California Secretary of State
- California Secretary of State, "About Ballot Arguments," accessed March 3, 2012
- NCSL, "Preparation of a Ballot Title and Summary," January 2002
- NCSL, "Banning Same or Similar Measures from the Ballot for a Specified Period of Time," May 2009
| Initiative law|
Ballot access rulings
Recent court cases
Ballot title challenges
| Laws governing|
local ballot measures
|1 Laws and procedures|
|2 Changes in the law|
|2.1 Proposed changes by year|
The following laws have been proposed which modify ballot measure law in California.
Proposed changes by year