California’s Direct Democracy – Initiatives, Referendum and Recall – Sources

California’s system of direct democracy in the news

On Friday (April 3, 2015), the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a California election law that requires the sponsors of ballot initiatives to identify themselves on the petitions they circulate to voters, rejecting a panel’s earlier decision that the law violates the constitutional right to speak anonymously.  (Chula Vista  Citizens for Jobs v. Donna Norris,  Case Number 12-55726)

The court also unanimously upheld a state law that requires the official sponsor of a proposed ballot measure to be a person rather than an association or a corporation. (CA Election Code §321(a); see also People v.Darcy, 139 P.2d 118,123. Defines an “elector” as “any person who is an United States citizen, 18 years of age or older and … is a resident of an election precinct at least 15 days prior to an election.”)

The San Francisco Chronicle published an article that discusses the history and the findings of the case.

State ballot measures

The Ninth Circuit case deals with municipal ballot measures but the process for placing an item on the state ballot has also been in the news recently due to the efforts of a South California attorney, Matt McLaughlin, to place on the ballot an initiative that calls for physical harm to be done against homosexuals.

The California State Attorney General, Kamala Harris, has filed an action for declaratory relief in Sacramento Superior Court (subscription kamala_harrisrequired for search) seeking judicial authorization for relief from the duty to prepare and issue the title and summary. (AG’s statement)

For further information on the story of the Attorney General’s response to the anti-gay initiative, you can read the LA Times here or the Sacramento Bee here.

The process for submitting a petition to be placed on the California state ballot is a rather simple process defined by the California Elections Code

  • write the text of the initiative
  • submit the text to the AG to prepare a title and a 100-word summary
  • pay the $200 filing fee

The attorney general is then required by law to prepare a title and a 100-word summary and forward it to the Secretary of State for public comment. Only then does the signature-gathering process begin.  Mr. McLaughlin has submitted his text and paid $200.  It is now up to the OAG to take the next steps.    Attorney General Harris has filed the petition with the court for a ruling that would allow her not to move forward.

The history of direct democracy in California

200px-Flag_of_California-svgCalifornia’s system of direct democracy has been a part of state government for more than 100 years.   The initiative, referendum and recall processes were adopted at both the state and local levels when voters ratified amendments in a special election on October 10, 1911.  For further research into the history of CA initiative and referendum process, a good source is the web site of the Initiative and Referendum Institute of the University of Southern California.

Here is a selection from the web site of the Initiative and Referendum Institute of University of Southern California:

What are ballot propositions, initiatives, and referendums?

Ballot measures or ballot propositions are proposals to enact new laws or constitutional amendments or repeal existing laws or constitutional amendments that are placed on the ballot for approval or rejection by the electorate. There are several different kinds of ballot measures:

An initiative is a proposal of a new law or constitutional amendment that is placed on the ballot by petition, that is, by collecting signatures of a certain number of citizens. Twenty-four states have the initiative process (list). Of the 24 states, 18 allow initiatives to propose constitutional amendments and 21 states allow initiatives to propose statutes. In most cases, once a sufficient number of signatures has been collected, the proposal is placed on the ballot for a vote of the people (“direct initiative”). In some cases, the proposal first goes to the legislature, and if approved by the legislature, is not voted on by the people (“indirect initiative”). For constitutional amendments, 16 states allow direct initiatives and two allow indirect initiatives. For statutes, 11 states allow direct initiatives for statutes, seven allow indirect initiatives, and two states (Utah and Washington) allow both direct and indirect initiatives.

A referendum (sometimes “popular referendum”) is a proposal to repeal a law that was previously enacted by the legislature, and that is placed on the ballot by citizen petition. A total of 24 states permit referendums, most of them states that also permit initiatives. Although the Progressives considered the referendum as important as the initiative, in practice, referendums are fairly rare, especially compared to initiatives.

A legislative measure or legislative proposition (or sometimes “referred” measure) is a proposal placed on the ballot by the legislature. All states permit legislative measures (list) and all states except for Delaware require constitutional amendments to be approved by the voters at large. In some states, legislatures place nonbinding advisory measures on the ballot. Legislative measures are much more common than initiatives and referendums, and are about twice as likely to be approved. Some states, such as Florida, also allow certain commissions to refer measures to the ballot.

There is no provision for any sort of ballot proposition at the national level in the United States.  However, the initiative and referendum are available in thousands of counties, cities and towns across the country and are utilized far more frequently than their statewide counterpart.


Other Internet sources of interest to those researching California ballot measures are:

UC Hastings collection

The researcher can browse:

PDF images of California Ballot Pamphlets (1911-2012).
PDF images of Individual Ballot Propositions.
PDF images of California Initiatives.  (includes a record of those initiatives that did not qualify for the ballot)

Other research sites suggested by the UC Hastings website include:

A History of California Initiatives: 1912 through January 2015 The Secretary of State has made available online an historical study and statistical analysis of California initiative measures.

California Attorney General Official Website For current information and full text of Initiatives (2004- current).

California Secretary of State Official Website For current information and full text of Propositions (1996- current).

For those researchers who are particularly interested in the history of California’s tax initiatives, they may want to look at the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association website.  The Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association was at the forefront of many of the state tax proposition campaigns  and continues to “be dedicated to the protection of Proposition 13 and the advancement of taxpayers’ rights, including the right to limited taxation, the right to vote on tax increases and the right of economical, equitable and efficient use of taxpayer dollars.”

Public Policy Institute of California  at the University of California, Berkeley has published a number of policy studies on the California initiative process.  Included on PPIC’s site is an overview  of the process itself and another on reforming the process.

There is also a fifty-state ballot measures directory supported by the  National Council of State Legislatures.  NCSL’s Ballot Measures database includes all statewide ballot measures for more than a century. The database is searchable by topic area, with options such as abortion, bond measures, criminal justice, education, elections, health, labor and employment, natural resources, tax and revenues, transportation and more. The database is updated as new ballot measures qualify to be on the ballot. On election night, each entry is updated with “pass” or “fail.”

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