McGeorge Adjunct Professor Chris Micheli

The state of California has three forms of direct democracy and they are found in Article II of the state constitution. Those three forms are the initiative, referendum, and recall processes.


The initiative begins with presenting a petition to the California Secretary of State that includes the text of the proposed statute or constitutional amendment before the circulation of an initiative petition for signatures by the voters. A copy is submitted to the Attorney General who prepares a Title and Summary of the measure. If the AG, the Attorney General, determines a fiscal analysis is necessary then he or she sends that measure to the Department of Finance and the Joint Legislative Budget Committee for a fiscal analysis.

What are the thresholds to qualify an initiative? For a statute it’s 5% of the votes cast for governor at the last gubernatorial election. That 5% threshold goes up to 8%, again of all the votes for governor at the last gubernatorial election, for proposed constitutional amendments. Proponents have 180 days to collect those signatures.

Note that there is a constitutional prohibition that an initiative cannot name any individual to hold any office or name or identify any private corporation to perform any function or have any power or duty. Those can’t even be submitted to the electorate.


In addition to the initiative process wherein voters can propose new laws, the people also have the power to approve or reject statutes, either in total or in part. This is the referendum process. As you can probably imagine, most referendum efforts have either failed to even qualify for the ballot or have been rejected by the voters. When a valid referendum qualifies challenging a statute, that underlying statute actually is stayed implementation, until after a vote by the electorate.

There is a significant time limitation with the referendum. The referendum must be presented within 90 days after the enactment date of the statute, and by the way, that presentation is the requirement that a sufficient number of votes be signed to that referendum petition. Referenda can qualify for the statewide ballot up to 31 days before an election, which is different than an initiative which must qualify 131 days before. Just like an initiative statutory proposal, a referendum petition must have at least 5% of voters based upon all the votes for the candidates for governor at the last gubernatorial election.

Note this point what a yes versus a no vote means. Once the referendum petition is on the ballot, the law is repealed if voters cast more no votes than yes votes on the referendum in question.


California voters have the power to remove an elected from office, and that too is initiated by delivering a petition to the Secretary of State. In that written petition, it alleges a reason for the recall. Please note that the sufficiency of the reason for that recall is not reviewable by any state official, the Secretary of State, or a court.

Proponents have 160 days to file the signed petitions on the recall, a petition to recall a statewide. A statewide officeholder must be signed by electors equal to 12% of the last vote for that office. The signatures from each of five counties must be equal in number to 1% of the last vote for the office in that particular county. An interesting limitation here. Signatures to recall State Senators, Assemblymembers, Board of Equalization Members, and judges of both the courts of appeal and the trial courts must equal 20% of the last vote for that particular office.

You can find a full transcript of today’s podcast here.