A Deliberative Poll for CA's Future :: Summer 2011

Initiative Process


This year marks the 100th anniversary of the creation of California’s initiative process, a system designed to put lawmaking power in the hands of the people. The initiative allows voters, often acting in organized groups, to collect signatures to put a new law or a change to the state constitution before their fellow voters on the ballot. Placed in the California Constitution by reformers who saw state government as corrupted by special interests, the initiative process was designed to make politicians more responsive to voter needs, and to help voters to get around politicians when they are not responsive. Some believe that the initiative is an important tool for good government and that the initiative process, while sometimes flawed, is still effective. Others worry that the initiative process often no longer works the way it was designed, and that special interests have taken over the very process meant to limit their power.

California allows citizens to use the initiative process to create laws or statutes, and to amend the state constitution. Since the state adopted the system, Californians have adopted 115 initiatives, including 64 laws and 42 constitutional amendments. Initiatives need only a simple majority of the vote to pass, and they usually pass only by narrow margins.

The initiative process has been embraced by activists, interest groups, elected officials, and voters across the political spectrum.  Over the years, California voters have used the initiative process to cut  and increase taxes, mandate spending, reinstate the death penalty, abolish affirmative action, impose term limits, reorganize government agencies, set up a redistricting commission, legalize medical marijuana, protect the state’s coastal zone, authorize embryonic stem cell research, regulate toxins, and much more. Many voter-approved initiatives have significantly affected the state budget, and many have limited the power of the legislature. Both supporters and critics understand that direct democracy in California has become no less than a fourth branch of government.

The initiative process has long been the focus of civic debate, study, and proposed reform. Supporters believe that citizens should be allowed to exercise political power by overriding government officials, including legislators, and judges, when their decisions stray too far from the popular will. They believe that government elites too often disregard the wishes of ordinary citizens, and that the initiative process is the main way that citizens can make sure that policies reflect their views. They also believe that citizens are at least as competent as government officials to make important policy decisions.

Critics of the initiative disagree. They say that voters are not always prepared to decide complex matters of public policy. The result may be poorly written and thought-out laws that are seen to some as state government dysfunction. They also believe that while the initiative may express majority will, it can also threaten individual or minority rights. They criticize not only the outcomes, but also the process itself. They say there is too much interest group money and influence, which means that ordinary voters do not truly control the process. Finally, critics of the initiative believe that it makes legislatures less responsible, limiting legislators’ choices by giving them an excuse to punt on tough issues.

Here are some, but certainly not all, choices to consider about this issue:

  • Initiatives should be kept as they are. They are an important tool for good government.  The process, while sometimes flawed, gives voice to the people, is a check on the legislature, and helps rein in spending.
  • The process needs reform to include better review for errors that might lead to unintended consequences, and so that supporters can revise text.
  • Change the process so that the legislature can play a role, including enacting a similar law, proposing a countermeasure, or amending the initiative.
  • Make initiatives more transparent so that all measures that require funding make clear where in the budget the money will come from.
  • Create a so-called initiative “PayGo” system, where measures that require new programs or tax cuts are financed with revenue increases or offset with budget cuts.
  • Make other changes including: allowing supporters a chance to pull back an initiative even after it qualifies for the ballot; or change voting thresholds.

Click here to view a video on the initiative process.

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