Direct democracy is the term we in government use to describe the ability of the voters to take matters into their own hands. In other words, it is the ability of the voters to enact or repeal laws, or recall elected officials. California is one of two dozen states that gives voters these checks on elected officials. The three forms of direct democracy – recall, initiative, and referendum – are not available at the federal level because neither the US Constitution nor federal law provide for them. California’s Constitution was amended in 1911 to provide for these forms of direct democracy.
Local and state elected officials can be recalled from office, meaning voters can vote to remove an elected official from their office before the next scheduled election. This process requires a petition that must be signed by a specified number of voters. Once that threshold is certified by either the Secretary of State or the County Registrar of Voters for state or local elected officials, respectively, the recall petition is then placed before voters within a specified amount of time.
In many instances recalls are used for purely political purposes because an individual or an interest group feels that a legislator voted for or against something that greatly displeased them. In other words, recalls are often not due to a violation of the public’s trust, or unethical or criminal conduct, but rather a specific vote.
This form of direct democracy is for voters to make laws. They can use this process to add, amend or repeal statutes or the California Constitution. The number of signatures required to place amendments to the California Constitution on the ballot – 8% of the votes cast in the previous statewide gubernatorial election – is higher than the number required for initiative statutes – 5%. Neither nor the Governor nor the Legislature have a formal role in an initiative, although the Legislature must conduct an informational hearing on ballot measures.
The Legislature can place constitutional amendments on the ballot through a vote on either an Assembly Constitutional Amendment (ACA) or a Senate Constitutional Amendment (SCA), but doing so requires a two-thirds vote in the Legislature. The Governor does not act on ACAs or SCAs. Once the initiative is placed on the ballot, it requires a simple majority vote to be enacted by the voters. Constitutional amendments can add, amend, or repeal sections of the California Constitution, but they cannot revise the Constitution.
The referendum allows voters to repeal a statute that was adopted by the Legislature and signed by the Governor. There are some restrictions on the referendum process. The number of required signatures must be acquired within 90 days of the bill being signed into law, versus 180 days for initiatives. While the vast majority of bills can be subject to referenda, some cannot. Bills that contain an urgency clause, a tax levy, or make appropriations for certain state expenditures are exempt from referenda. It is also worth noting that once a referendum qualifies for the ballot the bill – or the piece of the bill – that is subject to the referendum does not go into effect until after voters have had their say.