After twenty years of involvement in California elections, I've learned a thing or two - okay, I'll share with you the top ten things to know - about this state's initiative process and its unique quirks and characteristics. Here is the list:
1. Californians have a love-hate relationship with the initiative process. It is the most powerful political tool the people of California have, and they will never give it up or allow it to be weakened. But they complain about initiatives, too. A 2008 study by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) found that most voters think there are too many initiatives on the ballot, and say the wording of initiatives is too complicated and confusing for voters to understand what happens if the initiative passes.
2. Voters support certain reforms to the initiative process. They want to know, for example, how initiatives will be funded. A 2009 California Field Poll for Next Ten found that 75 percent want initiative sponsors when they submit new measures that call for additional spending to identify new funding sources or to explain areas of the existing budget that will be cut. Fully 56 percent of voters also support the idea of increasing the vote requirements needed to approve initiative amendments to the state constitution from a simple majority to two-thirds of those who vote in an election. An earlier, 2008 PPIC poll found that 75 percent of Californians favor a system of review and revision of proposed initiatives to try to avoid legal issues and drafting errors.
3. It is hard to pass an initiative. Voters on average defeat two out of every three initiatives put before them, while two out of three legislative measures placed on the ballot are approved. The conventional wisdom among voters appears to be when in doubt, vote no, or skip it altogether. There is always an undervote rate on every measure, which is higher or lower depending on the amount of campaigning about it. In the past five years, voters have considered a total of 47 measures - 17 were legislative measures, of which ten passed (59%), while 30 were initiative measures, of which only 8 passed (27%).
4. Passing an initiative is expensive. The rule of thumb is that you need at least $1 million to qualify a proposition for the ballot. Even initiative proposals with strong grassroots support have to pay for signature gathering to collect the hundreds of thousands of signatures needed, within a five-month time frame, to qualify a measure for the ballot. Waging statewide campaigns on initiatives is also expensive, chiefly because of high media costs. New communication technologies hold the promise of reducing some of these costs, and social networking tools are already being used by initiative proponents to develop a grassroots base of support.
The one component of the process that is clearly too inexpensive is the entry fee, currently set at $200, even though it costs an average of $6,800 to process each California initiative. The low entry fee is an incentive to file initiatives not seriously intended to change state law but meant rather just to make a statement. Some proponents submit several versions of the same initiative with slight modifications so they can take more time to decide which version they want to circulate.
5. You cannot win an initiative campaign without money, but neither can you win with money alone. A rich person with a million dollars can put an idea on the ballot. But over the years initiatives that have one or two rich backers but no broad coalition of support have invariably failed. In the case of Proposition 16 on the June 2010 ballot one company, Pacific Gas and Electric, led a 46 million dollar effort to make it more difficult for Californians to obtain public power services in their communities. Opponents raised and spent less than $100,000. This was clearly a David and Goliath contest in money terms, yet the measure was still defeated, with 47 percent of voters voting yes, and 53 percent no.
6. Disclosure matters. California has very strong campaign finance disclosure laws, requiring large contributions to be disclosed online within days of being made as election day approaches. Initiative advertisements on television must disclose the top two contributors to the committee sponsoring the ads, and the committee name itself must include the names of the top two contributors. This all adds up to the kind of transparency in the process that serves voters well. It lets journalists and nonpartisan voter education groups, like the California Voter Foundation, analyze data to "follow the money" and help voters identify the top donors for and against each measure on the ballot. Indeed, voters favor even more transparency. According to a PPIC study, 77 percent of Californians support better disclosure of signature-gathering funders, which would help voters overcome the difficulty they now have understanding who is funding an initiative campaign while the measure is in circulation.
7. Although there are two sides to every issue, voters may not learn that there are good legal arguments against a measure until after the vote. Sometimes initiative opponents withhold their best legal arguments, hoping to sue and invalidate a measure after the election, if it passes. In the case of Proposition 8, the campaign to make gay marriage illegal, opponents' message was that it was "wrong and unfair". Their ballot pamphlet arguments spoke in terms of constitutionally protected rights, but they did not say directly that the proposition was an unconstitutional violation of the equal protection clause. Nor did they say that the proposition was unacceptable because it was a constitutional revision. Although both these legal objections were later made in court, and that may be good legal strategy, voters were deprived of a full rehearsal of the relevant legal arguments before they voted. Californians would be better served by having the kind of pre-election, independent, legal review that Colorado conducts on initiatives.
8. Initiatives can motivate more people to vote. In California, 23.5 million people are eligible to vote and 17 million are registered. In a high turnout election, 12-13 million participate. When turnout is low, only five or six million Californians vote. In a 2004 survey of occasional voters, the California Voter Foundation found that the most important reason for voting was "to make your voice heard/express your opinion," and when initiatives on the ballot capture the public's attention and get people talking it can motivate more people to vote than would otherwise be the case. The survey also found that the opinions of friends and family are a big influence in deciding whether to vote. As voters increasingly turn to social networking tools to share their opinions about propositions this friends and family effect can be reinforced.
9. What happens to initiatives in California can have nationwide, and even global impacts. Property taxes, political reform, term limits, recycling, gay marriage, and, coming up this fall, global warming and marijuana legalization are all examples of subjects that have been put before California voters to make public policy changes via the initiative process and have then spread to other states. The way Californians vote on initiatives can, thus, have political ripple effects.
10. Californians think voters are better at lawmaking than lawmakers. A 2008 PPIC study found fully six in ten Californians say that the public policy decisions made by voters through the initiative process are probably better than those made by the governor and legislature.
Friday, July 30, 2010
Ten Things to Know About California's Initiative Process
I'm in San Francisco for two back-to-back initiative conferences, one focused on the United States, the other on global direct democracy, and put together a top ten list in honor of the occasion.