Initiative process “hijacked” by special interests, in need of reform

150 150 Stacy Danielson

In 1911 California voters, frustrated with the hold Southern Pacific Railroad and other wealthy special interests had on Sacramento politics, created the ballot initiative system to help regain the citizen’s voice in government.  And yet, here we are 100 years later, discussing the need to reform the ballot initiative system in order to again help regain the citizen’s voice in government from wealthy special interests.  

“The ballot initiative system is far from its original mission and vision,” stated Michelle Romero of the Greenlining Institute, a national policy research institute.

Romero is leading a project, sponsored in part by California Forward, that is taking a good look at what’s gone wrong in the California initiative process and how Californians feel about it.  Greenlining’s findings were released in a briefing Wednesday at the State Capitol.  

“The initiative process is something I am really deeply concerned about because it’s being hijacked by special interests,” said Assemblymember Paul Fong at today’s briefing. 

Fong cited a 2010 initiative backed by $16 million from PG&E (which would have limited competition for the corporate behemoth) and another consumer-unfriendly initiative backed by $15.8 million from Mercury Insurance as examples of how special interests have “hijacked” the process.  

Senator Loni Hancock was on hand at the briefing and added to the legislative perspective on the initiative process stating, “We have seen industry-sponsored initiatives that are there basically to get an economic advantage for a particular industry, initiatives can have wonderful titles that actually are very, very deceptive.”

The problem, as stated by Romero, has to do with access: some have access to the initiative process while others don’t.   Romero explained that one of the main causes of this disparity is—you guessed it—money.

In 1911 when the process was first implemented, in order to file an initiative you had to gather at most about thirty thousand signatures and there was no limit on the time to do so. A person with a good idea could organize groups of people in a grassroots fashion to collect this amount of signatures at little to no cost. 

Fast forward 100 years and a century’s worth of population growth and now you have to gather north of 800 thousand signatures in a period of 150 days. This impossible sounding feat can only be accomplished with a minimum of two or three million dollars to pay a signature-gathering firm. 

But that is just the beginning. The $3 million will only aid in qualifying an initiative for the ballot.  The cost of launching a public campaign to convince voters to actually pass an initiative could easily top $10 million.

According to the survey results released today by The Greenlining Institute, the problem goes beyond the initiative-industrial complex with its effect the civil rights of California’s citizens.

Results from a survey of a representative sample of Californians showed that 73% of California voters believe that the rights of various groups of people are often attacked via the initiative system—and 41% feel that their own rights have been attacked.

So what can be done? 

Greenlining’s survey results showed Californians favoring greater disclosure in initiative campaign funding, establishing a citizen’s commission or panel of judges to review potential initiatives for legality or errors, and having additional information available to them in the official state voter guide regarding the estimated impact of an initiative on measures such as unemployment rates or poverty rates.

The Greenlining Institute continues their research into ballot initiative process reform with the objective of advocating for reforms that would create a more open and transparent process, increase civic participation, incorporate a form of oversight where needed, and reduce the negative influence of big money in the initiative process. 

Greenlining welcomes collaborators and stakeholders to assist in their efforts to achieve this objective.

Stacy Danielson is a Communications & Events Associate at California Forward


Stacy Danielson

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