California’s proposition system is unique. Few other states have anything remotely approaching it. It was meant to be a system where citizens could take direct action, bypassing the legislature, and propose new measures to the electorate. In theory, it sounds great. But the reality is an increasing tsunami of propositions, often foisted by special interests and financed by those with direct monetary or political interests in the outcome. Further, getting a proposition on the ballot is a complicated process which can cost upwards of $3 million. Thus, it no longer has much to do with direct citizen involvement.
The proposition system, which took its current form in 1911, has three types of direct democracy: mandatory referendums, optional referendums, and initiatives. Mandatory referendums are state constitutional amendments passed by the legislature and signed by the government. Optional referendums seek to overturn existing laws and must be signed by 5% of the number of voters in the previous governor’s race. Initiatives are the most common type of proposition. They can seek to change the constitution or to enact new laws. Constitutional amendments require signatures from 8% of the numbers of voters in the previous gubernatorial race, while laws need 5%. All referendums and initiatives appear on the next ballot and are enacted with a Yes vote of over 50%.
While just three ballot measures have qualified so far for the June 2012 primary and 2012 general election, about 35 more are in the process of trying to qualify. That’s right, 35. Many are dueling propositions. They may be focused on the same subject but have radically different solutions. Or they can be taking the shotgun approach with several similar measures, hoping that one of them passes, as appears to be happening with three proposed initiatives about further legalizing marijuana and easing penalties for its use.
There are three initiatives about abortion. Two wish to repeal a court decision saying women under 18 can have an abortion without a waiting period or parental consent. Some exceptions would be allowed, but physicians would be required to report all abortions to the Department of Public Health and could be sued if they don’t. The third proposition has language so extreme that it would, no doubt inadvertently, make corporate personhood invalid in California. These three anti-abortion initiatives are clearly controversial and highlight how all ballot propositions must be carefully studied as their passage could change laws the voter didn’t want changed, as well as having seriously unintended consequences.
Another problem with ballot measures is they often mandate that money be spent on something without specifying where the money will come from. This is a major contributing factor to the current and ongoing California budget crisis, especially since they say the money cannot be used for anything else or diverted to the general fund.
There are also numerous initiatives targeting public pension funds, as well union political donations, and of course attempts to overturn the new legislative district boundaries. Few if any of the 35 pending initiatives were launched by concerned citizens seeking direct democracy. Instead, the usual special interests with millions behind them have mostly hijacked the process.