Very Small Steps Forward on Ballot Initiative System

Joe Mathews
Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)

SB 1253 hasn’t gotten much attention, but it deserves more. The legislation, backed by Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, proposes several very small improvements for California’s ballot initiative system.

It’s worth noting that the legislation does nothing to address the biggest flaw of the process: the inflexibility for which California initiatives are known worldwide. Initiatives, once passed by California voters, are nearly impossible to change.

This legislation ignores that “back end” of the initiative process and focuses on the front end – the process before measures are voted upon. It proposes to give voters a little more information on initiatives, via a state web site that would have to describe measures in clear language and list top donors for and against initiatives.

The legislation also seeks to create space for deliberation around measures earlier in the process—before they’ve qualified for the ballot. There would be a 30-day public review process once the attorney general receives a filed initiative, with request for title and summary. Once proponents have collected 25 percent of the necessary signatures to qualify for the ballot, legislative committees would hold public hearings.

There’s reason to wonder what such measures would produce, since they don’t directly involve the public in the process. That’s a missed opportunity; Oregon has a proven deliberative process for ballot initiatives that convenes citizens’ juries and produces a vote on the initiative by the jury, as well as arguments that end up in the ballot guide. California good government groups have yet to construct something similar here.

Perhaps the best thing in the legislation involves time. One reason it’s so costly to qualify initiatives in California is the short time frame – 150 days – for signature gathering. The idea period would be one year. But the legislation only bumps up the number to 180 days (a previous version of the measure provided 300 days, which would have been better).

The legislation also permits initiative proponents to withdraw measures from the ballot after the signatures are submitted. But this is a small advance – providing not more than a few extra weeks for negotiation on ballot measures. The proponents could not withdraw if the measure had actually qualified. That doesn’t go far enough—proponents should be able to withdraw even qualified measure, to give the maximum time to make deals to avoid a vote of the people. (Why max time? Successful initiatives are so inflexible in California that anything that avoids a vote deserves recognition).

The strangest provision of the legislation – and the one most likely to cause problems — is related to withdrawal. The legislation establishes a new kind of crime: offering or paying someone money or other considerations to obtain the withdrawal of a ballot initiative.

Two problems. First, California’s prisons and jails are already too full—so why create a new way to put initiative proponents in such places? Second, creating a penalty like this could discourage just the sort of negotiation that the withdrawal provision is meant to promote. One lets initiative proponents withdraw measures so they have more time to reach a deal. But if any deal can be a crime – and deals to remove initiatives from the ballot are likely to involve things that could be construed as “valuable considerations” – why would you risk making a deal?

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