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California’s Referendum Process and Misleading Ballot Measures

September 13, 2023

While voters have the power in a democracy, special interest and big money tends to complicate the democratic process by tapping into (and manipulating) that voter power in order to advance policies that residents would otherwise oppose. An example of this is California’s referendum process. 

In the California Constitution there’s a statute that allows voters to approve or reject measures and laws that have already been enacted. According to the Secretary of State’s website, “electors have the power to approve or reject statutes or parts of statutes, with the exception of urgency statutes, statutes calling elections, and statutes providing for tax levies or appropriations for usual, current state expenses.”(cite) Since 2011, referendum measures can only be voted on during statewide general elections. 

In theory the referendum process sounds like a great accountability policy – voters have the power to approve or challenge actions of the legislature – but in practice we have witnessed big money and special interests exploit the referendum process to benefit corporate profits. 

Unlike other initiatives, which need to qualify 131 days before election day, referendums can qualify for the ballot up to 31 days before a statewide election. In order for a referendum to appear on the ballot, a petition must first be circulated and receive signatures equalling 5% of votes cast for all candidates in the previous gubernatorial election. For the 2024 statewide election, a referendum effort must receive at least 546,651 signatures (based on the November 2, 2022 election) to qualify for the ballot. (cite

Once a bill is enacted into law, a proponent who is choosing to challenge it through the referendum process has only 90 days “to request and receive a circulating title and summary from the Attorney General, print petitions, gather the required number of valid signatures, and file the petitions with the county elections officials.” (cite)

The referendum process requires a lot of time, effort, and resources, which is why it’s heavily influenced and used by those with financial means, instead of it being a voter-led process. Tens of millions of dollars are poured into these efforts through groups that oftentimes have misleading names and messages to coax voters to join their crusade.

The current process makes it easy for corporations and special interests to influence voters to make decisions that aren’t in their best interests – even after a law is enacted, and even if it was passed directly by the voters. 

Voters ultimately have the power in our democracy – but without safeguards that prevent big money from manipulating and influencing our processes, it is extremely difficult for communities to receive representative leadership and enact the bold policies needed to equitably address our state’s challenges. 

So, when you head to the polls in November and come across ballot referendums, look at them with a healthy amount of scrutiny. Like most things related to elections, remember to follow the money to the groups leading the effort. It’s a safe bet that the money trail will allow you to determine who this policy will actually benefit, and with that information you can confidently vote your values on the ballot referendums that you come across next year.