It’s About Time to Change California’s Initiative Process

Linda-Sutton.gifBy Linda Sutton

The Initiative Reform Task Force met during the Democratic Party’s November E-Board meeting in Anaheim to propose changes in California’s initiative process. Chief among them is the immediate creation of a statewide "watch network" to analyze proposed initiatives as soon as they appear– BEFORE they are released for signatures.

Findings will then be published widely on the internet through both websites and e-mail networks. This requires no action by the legislature. It requires grassroots activists to join together and become researchers and bloggers who assemble and disseminate information about the propositions that are about to enter the pipeline.

First introduced at the beginning of the last century in response to railroad domination of the state legislature, the California initiative process was conceived as a form of direct democracy through which regular citizens could influence the political process. In recent years, however, it increasingly has been taken over by corporations, wealthy business interests, billionaires, and in this last election, tax-exempt religious organizations. The outrage following this election cycle provides a unique opportunity to reform this process at last.

There is no shortage of ideas for reform. In 2000, Assembly Speaker Hertzberg formed a commission to study and recommend changes, and the Center for Governmental Studies has issued their second edition of Democracy by Initiative. Action is what is needed next.

Some of the identified problems within the current system include:

1. Confusing language and headlines. Summaries that omit key consequences. Dumbed down slogans used to sell the measures to voters.

2. Media that does not reach enough of an audience and lack of background knowledge resulting in no evaluation or opinion.

3. Two-thirds vote needed to amend a constitutional initiative once passed, yet only a majority needed to pass it (even in a low-voter primary).

4. Too many complex initiatives making it overwhelming for voters to make informed decisions.

5. Repeating subject matter initiatives, e.g., this year’s Prop 4 defeated for the third time.

6. Huge contributions from interest groups that will benefit financially from passage of the measure. Disclosure insufficient to tell voters of these connections. Greater detail needed in filing statements. Secretary of State’s website alone is not enough.

7. Policy agenda driven by initiatives rather than the elected state legislature. Budget hamstrung by initiatives that impede the budgetary process. Voters told that bonds are "not taxes," when, in fact, they take money directly off the top of the general fund used to pay for other state services.

8. Signature gathering by paid gatherers who do not know or care about what the measure would do and often lie about the content (currently illegal, but still done).

The Constitution of the state of California now is more than 110 pages long–longer than all other states except for Louisiana. The state’s current financial crisis is exacerbated by the ballot-box budgeting promoted by ill-conceived measures sold to voters who often do not receive adequate information to understand the consequences of the initiative. Enough! It is time for reform to begin.

The list of problems is by no means complete. Nor is the following list of possible changes that would require action by the state legislature. This is to be considered an opening conversation to be joined and expanded upon by all interested citizens.

Initial recommendations of this Initiative Reform Task Force include:

1. All initiatives be voted on only in general elections and NOT in low turnout primaries. There was some discussion that there be a required percentage of participating eligible voters, but no consensus was reached on what this level should be.

2. All constitutional amendments to be submitted to the voters in two successive general elections and require 2/3 passage in each election.

3. No initiative that allows subversion of the state budget by ballot-box budgeting.

4. Limit the number of initiatives on each ballot.

5. After the signature gathering is concluded and the Secretary of State has qualified the initiative to appear, institute a waiting period during which the state legislature may act. The proposed period was three months, however, it was noted that in some areas the period is one year.

6. Citizens’ commission to evaluate proposition labels and summaries done by the Attorney General’s office.

7. Prohibit independent expenditure committees and require that supporters have to spend money directly with the name of the corporation or person on all disclosure forms.

8. Paid signature gatherers must wear a large button or sign that discloses who is paying them. Prohibiting payment for signature gathering was also proposed.

9. Require that the entire language of the measure be on each signature page, or that to each citizen be given a copy that must be read PRIOR to signing the petition.

10. History of all previous bond issues with dates and recipients to be prominently disclosed on an initiative involving a bond for the same entity.

The Initiative Reform Task Force currently includes members from the Progressive Democrats of Los Angeles and the Santa Monica Mountains, the Courage Campaign, the Pacific Palisades and Santa Monica Democratic Clubs, Valley Democrats United, and Westside Progressives. It is anticipated that it will grow into a statewide network of citizen activists to proactively monitor and analyze ballot initiatives BEFORE the signature gathering is completed to provide an early alarm.

The Yahoo group we will use:

Linda Sutton is a writer, photographer, and educator based in Los Angeles. She was the press coordinator for Gov. Jimmy Carter in ’76 and did political media locally thereafter. Recently, she produced the public access television show "We Say/They Say" with host Marcy Winograd and the "Gore Vidal on Education" Truth Now radio interview. She writes on various progressive blogs and comments way too often. Political photos are on the website; others at She was the co-producer of the 40th AD candidate forums and has produced the "HAiR" and "Body of War" fundraisers for Progressive Democrats of America. She is an elected delegate in CA’s 41st AD, is on the Human Rights Committee of UTLA’s House of Reps, and is a member of several Democratic clubs.

Posted on December 01, 2008


Group home page:
Group email address:

also bio update:
PDLA, Co-Chair
UTLA, PACE committee

Posted by: LindaSutton at December 1, 2008 05:59 AM