A report released today by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) recommends three steps to improve the initiative process—steps that reflect both Californians’ desire to continue making laws at the ballot box and their criticisms of the system. These policy changes would connect the legislative and initiative processes, increase disclosure of initiative funders, and reengage citizens in the initiative process.
The changes could have far-reaching consequences, says report author Mark Baldassare, PPIC’s president and CEO.
“These reforms are likely to have an impact beyond the initiative process,” he said. “They hold considerable promise for increasing citizen engagement, encouraging voter participation, and building trust in state government.”
The report, Reforming California’s Initiative Process, notes that the 10 years since the historic recall of the state governor have seen a level of political reform unprecedented in recent California history. Voters have been asked to weigh in on 100 state ballot propositions, 68 of them citizens’ initiatives. Many of the measures in recent years aimed to improve fiscal and governance systems that voters viewed as inadequate. Political reformers and legislators are now taking aim at the 102-year-old initiative process itself. At the same time, PPIC Statewide Surveys have consistently found both broad support for the initiative process and broad consensus that changes are needed to improve it.
Specifically, Californians would like to see changes that give them a role in fiscal policy, allay their concerns about the influence of moneyed interests, reduce their distrust of the legislature, and break through the partisan gridlock that has stifled government action on important policy decisions.
There is broad consensus on these three steps to change the initiative process:
- Connect the legislative and initiative processes. Californians like the idea of expanding the legislature’s involvement in the initiative process—as long as voters continue to be part of the decisionmaking. PPIC Surveys show that overwhelming majorities of Californians favor having a period of time that an initiative sponsor and the legislature could meet to seek compromise before a measure goes to the ballot. Overwhelming majorities of Californians also support a system of review and revision for proposed initiatives to try to avoid legal issues and drafting errors. One way to set up such a system would be to revive California’s indirect initiative, in which sponsors bring their initiatives to the legislature after the required number of signatures has been gathered. A way to give Californians a say in fiscal decisions—as they had in deciding the Proposition 30 tax initiative last year—would be to lower the vote threshold for the legislature to place tax measures on the ballot. A solid majority of residents favor this idea. But Californians balk at increasing the legislature’s power too much: Less than half favor allowing the legislature, with the governor’s approval, to amend initiatives after a certain number of years. And most oppose making it easier for the legislature to raise taxes without a public vote.
- Increase disclosure of initiative funders. Voters feel moneyed interests have too much involvement in the initiative process and that the intentions of these interests are not well known. Steps to increase public disclosure could include naming the top financial backers in signature-gathering materials, paid advertising, and the voter information guide. Voters could also get a chance to meet the advocates and opponents of an initiative through televised debates between the two sides. Televised debates are supported by overwhelming majorities in the PPIC Survey.
- Reengage citizens in the initiative process. Californians have lost their connection to their own citizens’ initiative process—one in which it takes a well-funded campaign just to get a measure on the ballot. Strong majorities of Californians like the idea of giving initiative sponsors more time to qualify for the ballot if their campaigns use volunteers rather than paid workers to gather signatures. Strong majorities also like the idea of renewing important ballot decisions by voting on them after a few years—a process that could result in more flexible lawmaking at the ballot box. Finally, California could benefit from a close look at Oregon’s experience. Oregon has established an independent citizens’ commission that holds public hearings on state initiatives and makes recommendations in the official voter information guide. This innovation gets strong support in the PPIC Statewide Survey.
The report notes that while voters have made big changes through initiatives, there has been little change to the initiative process itself. But a flurry of recent actions to reform state government suggests that the time may be ripe for reforming this tool of direct democracy. Voters have taken the power to draw legislative districts from the legislature, replaced partisan primaries with the top-two primary, changed legislative term limits, enabled legislators to pass a state budget with a simple majority vote, and raised their own taxes through a citizens’ initiative, Proposition 30. Given this recent history of reform and the consensus for making changes to the initiative process, the state may be poised to improve its system of direct democracy, Baldassare says.
“In the last five years, Californians have taken bold actions to reform their state government. Initiative reform—if pursued thoughtfully—could result in a brighter future for the state,” he said.
The report is supported with funding from the S. D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation.