California ballot initiatives — keep them but fix them

150 150 John Guenther

(photo credit: Ho John Lee)

Californians like the voice that the ballot initiative process gives us. If that voice were to suddenly go hoarse, suffice to say, it wouldn’t go over well. The ballot initiative has always been a people’s tool to ensure direct influence over policy in the Golden State (if we choose).

However, we also feel like it no longer works as well as it should and too often special interest money can hijack the process.

SB 1253, the Ballot Initiative Transparency Act (BITA) was approved by the State Senate Elections Committee to increase clarity and provide voters more information. The bill was introduced by Senator Darrell Steinberg, who also is the Senate President pro Tem.

California Forward, the League of Women of Voters of California and dozens of others civic groups have been meeting over the past year sharing opinions and ideas for changes in the initiative process.

“Californians like our initiative process, but they tell us often they are confused about what the initiatives mean and who is financially supporting them,” said Lenny Mendonca, co-chair of CA Fwd’s Leadership Council. ” SB 1253 will create clearer initiatives, simpler ballots and better information for California voters. 

BITA keeps what voters like most about the process–based on polls and focus groups and those discussion with more than 60 civic groups–while making improvements to the parts they feel work least well.

“What BITA will ensure is that the information voters receive will be better,” said Helen Hutchison, Vice President for Advocacy and Program for the League of Women Voters of California. “Initiatives can be confusing and poorly written. Voters deserve clear and straight-forward information about what initiatives do.”

Here’s an op-ed from the Sacramento Bee co-written on this issue by Helen Hutchison of the League and Kathay Feng of Common Cause.

The main elements of BITA would

  • Give voters more useful information about initiatives so they can make informed decisions;
  • Create ballot materials that are drafted in clear and straight-forward language;
  • Identify and correct mistakes in an initiative before it appears on the ballot.

“Our goal is to bring greater simplicity, transparency and accountability to the initiative process. It is what voters want and what they need to make informed decisions. We are very worried that the process has been dominated by big-money special interests that are able to spend more than $10 million and rely heavily on paid signature gathering firms. That isn’t how the process is supposed to work, and that doesn’t help Californians,” Hutchinson said.

CA Fwd’s Public Affairs Director Phillip Ung testified in support of the bill at the Senate Elections Committee.

“Our 100-year-old initiative process is inflexible to California voters who simply want more clarity, transparency, and accountability. With SB 1253, we can take meaningful steps toward simplifying our direct democracy for all future elections,” said Ung.

If SB 1253 becomes law, let’s hope it helps.

As CA Fwd reported last week, California finds itself near last in a state-by-state  comparison of election performance. Pew’s latest Election Performance Index rated California 49th.

A linchpin of CA Fwd’s reform efforts is promiting a viable, inclusive and representative democracy.  Plainly, there’s work to do.  


John Guenther

All stories by: John Guenther