Initiatives and Referendum

In yesterday’s podcast, I discussed common misconceptions about elections in California. Today I am taking a deeper look at elections in California. Specifically, I will be talking about initiatives and referendum – two of three direct democracy processes available to voters in California. The third process is the recall.

The direct democracy process dates back to the early 1900s and was proposed by the Progressive Party as a means to counter the all-powerful Southern Pacific Railroad. At the time, California was the tenth state to enact direct democracy procedures – the initiative, the referendum, and the recall.

As a brief overview, there are two types of initiatives – statutory and constitutional amendment. This process is used to create laws or changes to the constitution that the people of California believe the elected officials are either unable or unwilling to enact themselves. To qualify an initiative, the initiative is first drafted, then is given to California’s Attorney General for Title and Summary. Then it must gain a sufficient amount of signatures in order to be placed on the ballot. One difference between statutory and constitutional amendment initiatives is here at the signature gathering phase. In order to qualify for the ballot, statutory initiatives must receive signatures equal to 5% of the votes cast for all candidates for Governor in the previous gubernatorial election whereas constitutional amendment initiatives must receive signatures equally 8% of that number. Proponents have 180 days to collect that number of signatures.

Referendum are used to approve or reject – usually reject – recently enacted statutes in whole or in part. There are some exceptions to this that I mentioned in yesterday’s podcast. Referendum go through a similar qualification process. Referendum must also receive a number of signatures equal to 5% of the votes cast for all candidates for Governor in the last Gubernatorial election. However, referendum campaigns only have 90 days to collect the required number of signatures.

In recent years, the direct democracy process has been more often utilized by special interest groups and wealthy individuals who end up funding multi-million dollar campaigns in efforts to change the law – sometimes in a very self-serving manner. We’ve also seen recently a growth in the use of the initiative process and an increase in the cost of initiative campaigns.

We did a little calculation over the first 100 years of the initiative process being available. That is, from 1912 through July of 2013. And what we found were the following: 1,767 initiatives were given Title and Summary and circulated for signatures. Of those, 1,311 – or 74% of them – actually failed to qualify. Moreover, 92 of them were withdrawn. So as a result, 360 initiatives, or only 20% – qualified for the ballot. Of those 360 initiatives that qualified, and therefore appeared on a California state ballot, only 122 of them were approved by the people – just under 7%. So, even if initiatives are increasingly becoming the tool of special interest groups, the odds of success on the statewide ballot are pretty slim.