League of Women Voters: Time for new views on CA’s Initiative Process

150 150 Caroline Bruister

On the November 2012 statewide ballot, there were 10 initiatives and 1 referendum for California voters to decide on. In May 2011, the League of Women Voters of California (LWVC) adopted a study to update of their position on the initiative and referendum (I&R) process. The League uses such studies to develop positions to advocate on policy issues. The study committee developed material that local League chapters are currently using to come to consensus at meetings through March 2013. The reports submitted by all of the chapters as a result of these meetings will be combined to create a new statewide position on one of the voter’s favorite means of direct democracy.  

Although there is little distinguishing the letter of I&R laws today from their enactment over a century ago, their role in governance has grown exponentially.  I&R was an attempt by the grassroots effort of the Lincoln-Roosevelt League to take back control of California government from Southern Pacific Railroad, dubbed “the machine” at the time. However, in modern day politics, the process for qualifying a citizen initiative has resulted in well-financed organizations, including corporations and interest groups, spending millions of dollars every cycle, bypassing the legislative process and placing their pet projects or policies directly in front of voters.

The study guide and consensus questions developed by the LWVC examine the history, practices (including those of other states), and key concerns, sifting through dozens of ideas to reform California’s process.  They are seeking to identify the deeper policy-based issues that will help shape the League’s position on California’s I&R process in the future.

The options on the table for reforming California’s I&R process range far and wide, from throwing out the whole process (as suggested by Peter Schrag in Paradise Lost) to further embracing the growing trend of direct democracy.  According to LWVC Boardmember Helen Hutchison, “meaty conversations are taking place all over the state” by a majority of the chapters in California that are engaging their members on the I&R study materials., Here are some of the themes that have emerged from those conversations so far:

1. Level the Imbalance of Money Interests – The I&R process in California is much more accessible to groups that have significant amounts of money.  Is there a way to return the process to its original intent to be a tool for the people? Money spent by proponents before an initiative qualifies for the ballot can determine which measures even get qualified. Some of the ideas to level the playing field include adjusting qualification requirements to allow fewer signatures or allowing more time to qualify an initiative. Some go so far as to say the State could benefit by just charging proponents $2 million—the current estimate of the cost to gather signatures for an initiative—to put an item on the ballot, rather than gathering signatures.

2. Increase Transparency –Shocking sums of money are spent to influence voters after a measure has qualified for the ballot. The Supreme Court tells us that this money cannot be limited, but it can at least become more easily visible to the public.   Ideas include improved accountability, disclosure and easy public access to information about the money that flows into and through the initiative process.

3. Engage Citizens – Engage and educate the voting public about ballot measures using ideas like deliberative polling or a citizens’ initiative review panel. In Oregon, panels of 24 voters who are randomly-selected and demographically-balanced come together from across the state to evaluate a ballot measure. The panels hear directly from campaigns for and against each measure and call upon policy experts during the multi-day public review. At the conclusion, each panel then drafts a Citizens’ Statement highlighting the most important findings about the measure. Separate panels are used for each ballot measure.

4. Think Slowly; Work Together – Restructure the people’s initiative process to include steps which are normally part of the legislative process—adding analysis, deliberation, debate, negotiation and the ability to amend the measure before balloting. Revisit the indirect initiative process by providing incentives of a lower signature threshold or longer circulation time to initiative proponents for indirect initiatives submitted to the Legislature.

5. Use Technology – Allow e-gathering of signatures on the Internet, or other utilization of technology to streamline or enhance the qualification process, such as allowing a “no” to indicate an item should not appear on the ballot (balanced with concerns of disenfranchisement of non-computer literate or citizens without access to computers.) 

California’s relationship with the I&R process will only continue to evolve; technological shifts like electronic signature gathering could actually in crease the number of measures on future ballots. This evolution means that having a solid LWVC position that considers potential policy implications is essential.

The LWVC is encouraging everyone to get involved in this important conversation. You can view all of the study and background materials online here: http://ca.lwv.org/issues/initiative-and-referendum. For a lively discussion on the topic join the Facebook group or contact your local League and attend a meeting in person! Leagues in the Bay Area as well as Southern California are even inviting elected officials to participate in the conversation.  Make your voice heard today!


Caroline Bruister

All stories by: Caroline Bruister