California and National Elections

California Initiative Process Remains Confounding and Controversial

SAN FRANCISCO -- Californians will once again face a daunting list of choices when they enter the voting booth Nov. 7. Candidates running for office represent only a fraction of those choices.

This year’s ballot includes 13 state initiatives, among them, proposals to tax oil producers (Proposition 87) to require notification of parents if their underage daughter seeks an abortion (Proposition 85).

This year’s ballot includes 13 state initiatives, among them, proposals to tax oil producers (Proposition 87) to require notification of parents if their underage daughter seeks an abortion (Proposition 85).

“It’s overwhelming because you just don’t know what to think,” said Christine Russo, 30, a kindergarten teacher from Pleasant Hill. “A lot of the stuff isn't written in plain English and you don't know who sponsored it or what it's really going to do.”

California voters have echoed Russo’s confusion for decades.

In a special election in 1911, voters overwhelmingly approved the state ballot initiative system, hoping that it would give citizens a more direct voice in government.

Shakari Byerly, of the Center for Governmental Studies, a Los Angeles-based policy think tank, says voters were rebelling against the stronghold businesses like Southern Pacific Railroad had on California politics. At the time, the railroad was a special interest group with a loud voice in state government, according to Byerly.

Nearly a century later, what began as a progressive, grassroots movement has morphed into a multi-million dollar industry. The interest groups have changed and rather than simply lobbying government officials for support, they shell out millions hoping to lure voters to their various causes.

The process for putting an initiative on the ballot is straightforward. Proponents write the text of the proposed law and submit it to the Attorney General, who gives the initiative a title and prepares a summary. The proponent circulates the measure as a petition for up to 150 days. Proponents must gather a set number of signatures, based on a percentage of votes cast during the most recent gubernatorial election. Once that requirement is satisfied, the initiative qualifies for the ballot.

Technical and logistical steps are one thing. Carrying out the process is another.

“There was a time when it was difficult to get an initiative on the ballot,” said Bill Whalen, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and Republican political consultant. “Nowadays, there are people who get paid for going door to door to collect signatures.”

Roseville-based National Petition Management has worked on dozens of signature-gathering campaigns for ballot initiatives, including California’s controversial stem cell research measure, passed by voters in November of 2004. National Petition Management pays signature collectors 75 cents to $3 for each name they gather. That could amount to nearly $1.8 million for a constitutional amendment initiative.

“These campaigns are getting more and more expensive and we’re seeing fewer and fewer people making contributions,” said Byerly. “This isn’t a-thousand $100 contributions. We’re seeing one person drop $7 million for a particular issue.”

In addition to funding petition drives, money is needed for various advertising campaigns once the initiative is on the ballot.

For this year’s election, a variety of forces—government agencies, public safety organizations, chambers of commerce, and oil companies—banded together to oppose Proposition 87, the oil tax initiative. According to campaign contribution data on the Secretary of State’s website, Chevron Corp. alone has donated $34 million to defeat the measure.

New York real estate heir turned movie producer, Stephen Bing, in turn donated nearly $44 million in support of Proposition 87. Proponents have also garnered the support of former President Bill Clinton, former Vice President Al Gore and actress Julia Roberts -- star power absent from the gubernatorial campaigns of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger or his Democratic opponent, State Treasurer Phil Angelides.

“People are motivated to go out to the polls when there’s an issue that they care about,” Byerly said. “Maybe more so than when there’s a candidate that they care about.”

In fact, Byerly added that candidates from both political parties ride on the coattails of ballot initiatives. This year, voters in Arizona, Colorado, Missouri, Montana, Nevada and Ohio are voting on minimum wage reform and Democrats hope that will foster greater voter turnout. She added that former Republican Governor Pete Wilson acted similarly in 1994 when Proposition 187, a controversial immigration reform measure, was on the ballot. Voters supported Proposition 187 and Wilson won his re-election campaign.

The passage of Proposition 13 in 1978 ushered in this era of hyperactivity. Proposition 13 amended the California constitution and capped property tax rates. It is credited with thrusting then-Governor Ronald Reagan into the national spotlight and with sparking a nationwide taxpayer revolution that led to the passage of similar ballot initiatives nationwide.

David McCuan, Assistant Professor of Political Science at Sonoma State University, calls Proposition 13 the poster child for the power of initiatives.

“When things happen in California, they catch fire,” said McCuan. He cites California’s diverse ethnic and economic population, which closely mirrors that of the United States. “If it happens in California, it can be used as a case study across the nation and be mimicked.”

Case in point: Proposition 209. Passed in 1996, the initiative bans public agencies and universities in California from considering race, ethnicity or gender during the admissions or application process, or when awarding public contracts.

The architect of Proposition 209, Ward Connerly, went on to construct a similar proposal for Washington State, which passed in 1998. Connerly is sponsoring almost identical legislation for Michigan’s ballot this year.

From the inception of California’s initiative system through the 1970s, 160 initiatives qualified for the state ballot. Use exploded in the 1980s and 1990s, when voters grappled with 105 initiatives over two decades.

The number of propositions has increased even more in the 21st Century. This year included, there have been 85 initiatives on the ballot since 2000. One additional measure is already on the ballot for 2008. That proposition seeks the establishment of a high-speed passenger rail system linking California from San Diego to the Bay Area.

Experts say groups no longer use the initiative process as a way to augment legislative activity. Rather, it is seen as a means to drive groundbreaking legislation.

“Over the last 30 years, major policies have been made almost exclusively through the initiative process,” said Byerly. She added that the result is a “patchwork pattern” of governance that lacks a coherent vision for the future.

“The legislature takes its cue from the initiative process,” she said.

McCuan says legislators have allowed themselves to be made impotent by ballot initiatives.

“They are unwilling to be bold, they are unwilling to be innovative, they are unwilling to lead,” he said.

That reluctance on the part of legislators has led to confusion on the part of voters, who are left to filter through thick election guides and countless campaign mailers to figure out where they stand. The simple language of a ballot’s summary statements and analysis does little to help them make sense of complex issues.

In the on-line political and art forum,, blogger Matt Stewart argues that few voters have the inclination or expertise required to dig through all the legalese of the propositions’ texts.

Stewart feels special interest groups capitalize on this confusion and take their initiatives to the voters, hoping for quick approval. He wrote, “Thus it can be argued that, due in part to our inane proposition system, we are saddled with semi-tyranny.”

Byerly tends to agree.

“You have individuals or organizations that are driven less by the popular will than by their own agendas,” she said. “And they are able to raise the money and other resources to get their message out in a way that’s clear and reasonable. In the absence of competing well-heeled interests, I’m not sure that that can be seen as truly democratic.”

Despite all the complaints and confusion, voters seem to be willing to tolerate the current system. A November 2005 survey by the Public Policy Institute of California found only 38% of the voters who had participated in the special election felt the initiative process needed “major changes.”

“At the same time that [voters] find it confusing and overwhelmingly used by special interests, they still feel that they trust the initiative process more so than the Legislature or the Governor to make quality decisions about California’s future,” said Byerly.

Russo said she always votes and will not let any confusion about ballot measures keep her from the polls on Nov. 7. To be safe, if she is in doubt about a particular proposition, she said she will vote no.

“Californians love to be asked to the dance, and they love to say, ‘No,’” McCuan said. “As a result, they see the initiative process in the abstract as largely being valuable.”

Besides, he added, “To reform the process would require a ballot measure.”