Is California’s ballot initiative process broken? Lawmakers think so.

California’s experiment in direct democracy – where citizens pass laws by voting on initiatives and referendums, sidestepping the legislature entirely – is facing three new reforms.

To get on a ballot, measures must be supported by petitions with more than 500,000 signatures. This has led to the practice of paying people for each signature they collect, which critics say promotes "signature fraud."

Others say the whole process needs more transparency, as big-money contributors can remain largely unknown.

California’s initiative process was designed to give serious, political voice to the average citizen, says state Sen. Mark DeSaulnier, but over the years has become "hijacked by monied interests on the right and left." Special interests spent over $1.3 billion on proposition battles between 2000 and 2006, according to the Center for Governmental Studies (CGS), a Los Angeles-based political reform organization.

He adds, “what is wrong in California is abuse of the initiative system."

Opponents of the reform bills say legislators are hoarding power by making citizen legislation more difficult. “They’re trying to make it harder for plain folks,” Kris Vosburgh, executive director of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, told California Watch.

The three bills moving forward are:

  • SB 334 requires the Secretary of State to list in the ballot pamphlet the five largest contributors supporting or opposing each measure, along with their total contributions. The bill has passed the Senate. “Voters need more information about who is behind these initiatives,” says state Senator DeSaulnier
  • SB 448 says that anyone circulating an initiative, referendum, or recall petition must wear a badge. If they are being compensated, the badge must say so. If not, it must say “volunteer.” Different versions of this bill have passed in the Senate and the Assembly.
  • SB 168 makes it a misdemeanor to pay or be paid per signature, when circulating a petition for a state or local initiative. This has passed both houses and is awaiting Gov. Jerry Brown’s signature.

“These are real, significant reforms to a process in desperate need of massive changes,” says Jessica Levinson, former political reform director for CGS.

“We have the most generous ballot initiative process in the country," she says. "It has gotten us into trouble, because a lot of stuff passes without due deliberation.” California citizens have tried 344 times, over the past 100 years, to go around their elected legislators. Some blame the process for California’s perennial difficulties in passing a balanced budget on time, since some 60 percent of the state’s general fund is locked into place by citizen-made laws.

The new reforms are well-intentioned, but the measures may not do enough, says John Matsusaka, president of the Referendum and Initiative Institute at the University of Southern California.

“I have never seen evidence that signature fraud is enough of a problem – and if it was, this wouldn’t change that,” he says.

“It will become more costly to get signatures” under the new reforms, Professor Matsusaka adds, since signature-collectors will have to be paid by the hour. “It’s ironic that the reformers are unhappy that the process is dominated by rich groups,” he says, because “this will require that initiative backers be even more rich.”

Past efforts to reform the process have gotten little traction, in part due to strong opposition from former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Reformers hope that the “fix this state” attitude of Governor Brown will create a more reform-friendly environment.

Reform efforts have also floundered because “legislators hate the process and don’t want to improve it – and voters don’t trust the legislature to do the right thing,” says Robert Stern, CGS president. He thinks the proposed reform measures merely chip away at the edge of the problem, which is that voters are faced with too many ballot measures – including many that are poorly drafted.

Adds Mr. Stern, “It may take an initiative to reform the initiative process.”