McGeorge Adjunct Professor Chris Micheli

While a referendum is commonly used to refer to the practice of submitting a question or a measure to a popular vote of the electorate, such as Brexit in the United Kingdom, in the US states that have direct democracy – about two dozen of them – the referendum is used by the electorate to overturn a statute that was enacted by the state legislature. There are a few aspects of the referendum process that are unique to California.

The first, which was discussed in Friday’s blog post, is that there are four types of statutes that are exempt for being subject to a referendum. Those four are urgency statutes, statutes calling for elections, statutes providing for tax levies, and statutes providing for appropriations for the usual current expenses of the state.

The second is that once a referendum qualifies for the ballot, then the statute that is being subjected to the referendum is stayed. It is does not take effect and is essentially on hold until the results of the election.

Speaking of qualifying for the ballot, proponents of a referendum have only 90 days from the enactment of the statute to collect the requisite number of signatures to place their referendum on the ballot. That signature threshold is equal to five percent of the votes for all the candidates for governor in the last gubernatorial election.

Another unique aspect is that voters can overturn a statute either in part, or in whole. Article II, Section 9 of the California Constitution reads in part “to approve or reject statutes or parts of statutes.” As a result, if the referendum’s proponents want to overturn the entire law or just a part of it, then they can pursue either option.

The last aspect, and most important one to understand for voters, is the meaning of a yes or a no vote on the referendum itself. The definitions are actually counter-intuitive. Once on the ballot, the law is repealed if voters cast more no votes than yes votes. In other words, if a majority votes no, then the law never takes effect.

You can find the transcript of today’s podcast here.