California’s Direct Democracy Recession

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)

California made history in its direct democracy in this decade, the 2010s. Our state had the fewest statewide ballot measures in modern history. 

Ballotpedia found in a new report that between 2010 and 2019, there were only 69 statewide measures, the fewest number of measures since the establishment of the initiative and referendum in 1911.

Ballotpedia found that the average number of ballot measure in a decade is 116 over the past century.

Much of that drop was the result of the legislature putting fewer constitutional amendments, bonds and other statues on the ballot. The number of citizen-initiated measures was actually above average in this decade. 

But the numbers could go down more. Democrats control the legislature and governorship, so do they really want ballot measures? Democrats might be wise to pursue more constitutional changes, but so far during this era of Democratic dominance, they’ve been reluctant to push governmental or structural reform.

Also, as Ballotpedia points out, signature gathering standards are higher, given the higher turnout in the 2018 governor’s race. That means more signatures are necessary and it’s getting harder and more expensive to get signatures. Fewer people and groups are likely to attempt to make the ballot. The 2020 general election ballot looks like it will have only six measures, a relatively low number.

Direct democracy is spreading around the world, but in California’s, it’s on the wane.

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