California ballot proposition

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In California, a ballot proposition can be a referendum or an initiative measure that is submitted to the electorate for a direct decision or direct vote (or plebiscite). If passed, it can alter one or more of the articles of the Constitution of California, one or more of the 29 California Codes, or another law in the California Statutes by clarifying current or adding statute(s) or removing current statute(s).

Measures can be placed on the ballot either by the California State Legislature or via a petition signed by registered voters. The state legislature can place a state constitutional amendment or a proposed law change on the ballot as a referendum to be approved by voters. Under the state constitution, certain proposed changes to state laws may require mandatory referenda, and must be approved by voters before they can take effect. A measure placed on the ballot via petition can either be a vote to veto a law that has been adopted by the legislature (an optional referendum or "people's veto") or a new proposed law (initiative).


There are three forms of direct democracy in California. Referenda have been a part of the Constitution of California since 1856. The initiative and optional (or facultative) referendum were introduced in 1911, by a constitutional amendment called Proposition 7. California Senate Bill 202 (2011) mandated that initiatives and optional referenda can appear only on the November general election ballot.[1]


A ballot proposition enacted by the initiative process can alter the Constitution of California, the California Codes, or another law in the California Statutes. An initiative is brought about by writing a proposed law as a petition, and submitting the petition to the California Attorney General along with a submission fee (in 2004 this was $200), and obtaining signatures on petitions from registered voters amounting to 8 percent (for an amendment to the state constitution) or 5 percent (for a statute) of the number of people who voted in the most recent election for governor. The signed petitions are then sent to the Secretary of State of California for validation of signatures.

Before initiative proponents may gather signatures, the Attorney General prepares an official title and summary for the proposed law, and the California Legislative Analyst's Office submits a report on its estimated fiscal effects. The Legislative Analyst's Office has 25 working days after receiving the final version of the proposed measure to prepare its report, and the Attorney General has 15 days after receiving these fiscal estimates to write the title and summary.

After gaining approval, proponents have 180 days to gather the required number of signatures. Due to duplicate signing or invalid signatures, usually at least 50% more than the legal minimum number of signatures are collected to compensate for possible invalidated signatures. If the number of validated signatures is more than the minimum number required, the proposed initiative measure is submitted to the voters.[2]

The cut off time to get on a particular ballot is 131 days before that election. Measures that qualify after this deadline are then placed on the following statewide ballot.

To pass, "yes" votes on a proposition must exceed "no" votes (i.e., more than 50% of all voters who vote). Ballots that record neither a "yes" nor a "no" on the proposition are ignored. In other words, the majority of voters required for passage refers to a majority of those voting on that proposition, rather than a majority of those voting in the election held at the same time or a majority of those who are registered to vote. If the proposition passes, it becomes a part of the state constitution (if it is a proposed amendment) or the state's statutes (if it is a proposed statute) in the same manner and having the same legal effect as if it had been passed by the state legislature and signed by the governor.

Mandatory referendum[edit]

The State Legislature may pass an act that proposes a state constitutional amendment. After it is signed by the Governor, it's submitted to the voters as a referendum at the next statewide election. If more than 50% of the voters approve the referendum, the constitutional amendment is approved and goes into effect. Other legislative bills that may require mandatory referenda include bond measures and amendments to previously approved voter initiatives.

Optional referendum[edit]

Laws already adopted by the state legislature may be vetoed by means of a referendum. This is also known as a "petition referendum" or "people's veto". The process is similar to an initiative as noted above, except that it is an already passed law submitted as a petition to the Attorney General. The proponent, however, must submit the request no more than 90 days after the law in question is enacted (otherwise, it must go through the initiative process, submitted as a proposed amendment). To qualify on the ballot, a referendum petition must have the signatures of at least five percent of the number of voters in the previous gubernatorial election. Then if more than 50% of the voters cast "No" on their ballots, the law is repealed.

Proposition numbering[edit]

Originally, ballot propositions were given a number starting at one each year. This tended to be confusing as often famous initiatives such as Proposition 13 in 1978 might be confused with another initiative in a later year if there were more than twelve proposals on the ballot in any given year. Starting in 1982, the proposition numbers were not re-used but would continue to increment until at least a decade had passed from when a particular one had appeared on the ballot, eventually resulting in proposition numbers exceeding 200. Starting with the 1998 ballot, the count has been reset back to one. It is now reset every ten years.[3]

Conflicting propositions[edit]

Under Article II, Section 10(b) of the California Constitution, "If provisions of 2 or more measures approved at the same election conflict, those of the measure receiving the highest affirmative vote shall prevail." However, those provisions that do not conflict with the winning proposition may still go into effect. To get around this loophole, many initiatives include so-called "poison pill" clauses, specifying which provisions are voided in the other propositions.[4]

The rule in the constitution was clarified in 1990 by the California Supreme Court in its ruling in Taxpayers to Limit Campaign Spending v. Fair Political Practices Commission:

When two or more measures are competing initiatives, either because they are expressly offered as "all-or-nothing" alternatives or because each creates a comprehensive regulatory scheme related to the same subject, section 10(b) mandates that only the provisions of the measure receiving the highest number of affirmative votes be enforced.[5]

The Court was concerned that attempts to combine the non-conflicting provisions in such competing initiatives would result in regulatory schemes completely different than what the electorate understood or intended.[5]


Generally, because of California's size and population, proponents of a ballot initiative or referendum need the money and the resources to first gather over 500,000 petition signatures, and then campaign across the state as if they were running for office. This has led to charges that the wealthy and special interest groups have taken over the process because they can afford to do so instead of the average California voter.

Another complaint is the cumulative effect of all the stand-alone propositions passed by voters, as they collectively limit the state legislature in dealing with the state budget and various other areas of public policy. For example, legislators trying to pass a state budget must work around both Proposition 13's inflexible limits on taxes and Proposition 98's school-funding guarantee.[6]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Siders, David (October 8, 2011). "Gov. Jerry Brown signs bill restricting ballot initiative to November elections". The Sacramento Bee. Retrieved September 28, 2012. 
  2. ^ "Statewide Initiative Guide | California Secretary of State". Retrieved 2016-02-09. 
  3. ^ California Attorney General's Office Initiative Guide
  4. ^ "In Depth". League of Women Voters of California Education Fund. Retrieved July 15, 2012. 
  5. ^ a b "Taxpayers to Limit Campaign Spending v. Fair Pol. Practices Com. - 51 Cal.3d 744 S012016". 1 November 1990. Retrieved 16 November 2016. 
  6. ^ "After 100 years, does California's initiative process need a tune-up?". Retrieved 16 November 2016.