Bill Whalen

California’s century-old initiative process requires a reboot

Silicon Valley venture capitalist Tim Draper failed last year to get a measure on the ballot that would ask voters to split California into six separate states.
Silicon Valley venture capitalist Tim Draper failed last year to get a measure on the ballot that would ask voters to split California into six separate states. Associated Press file

Will Jerry Brown run for the White House in 2016? It seems not.

Will we still be calling him “Mister President” in 2017? That depends on one political activist.

That would be Louis Marinelli, whose group Sovereign California wants to place six initiatives on the November 2016 ballot, including one that would replace “governor” with “president” in the state constitution.

Marinelli’s other ballot pitches: Place California’s flag atop the U.S. flag; create a panel exploring transfer of federal authority to Sacramento; write a new immigration code; place an excise tax on bottled water drawn in California; and ban out-of-state money in state elections.

Welcome to the colorful world of California initiatives, potentially a chromatic free-for-all in 2016. Credit a witches’ brew of loose cannons like Marinelli, lawmakers who see the ballot as a convenient out, historically low turnout in 2014 that made qualifying measures sinfully easy and, last but not least, a 2011 law signed by Brown that forced initiatives and referenda to the general election.

Just how many ballot measures will Californians face in 2016? Two have already qualified, 26 have been cleared for circulation and nine more await title and summary from the Attorney General’s Office. For the record, three initiatives were on the inaugural 1912 ballot; voters decided on 11 in November 2012, the last presidential election.

It’s hard not to be disappointed with the way things work – and don’t – under the Capitol dome. I count at least five pending initiatives – marijuana legalization, pension reform, nuclear-power safeguards, requiring adult film stars to wear condoms and extending Proposition’s 30 tax increase (which could have been done originally in 2012 without going to the ballot) – that could be handled by a legislative vote instead of vox populi.

If we’re going to keep an initiative process that is a century old and showing its age, surely there’s room for improvement.

In October 2013, the Public Policy Institute of California started down this road. It recommended more transparency in initiative funding; getting citizens re-engaged in a process riddled with special-interest influence; and connecting the legislative and referenda processes through the indirect initiative, which puts ballot measures before the Legislature.

I’d like to add a few ideas to the mix.

First, raise the minimum for signatures needed to qualify a measure from the current thresholds – 5 percent of the total votes cast in the most recent gubernatorial election for laws and 8 percent for constitutional amendments. Let’s bump the former to 6 percent, the law in Oregon, and the latter to 10 percent.

Second, as a safeguard against increasing and eliminating government programs, raise the percentage of votes required to pass measures not deemed to be revenue-neutral. Try a 55 percent threshold for starters. If that rule had been in place in 2012, Proposition 30 still passes (though barely, by 0.4 percentage points).

Finally, we should add a “sunset” provision that limits all voter-approved ballot measures to 12 years before another public vote. If Californians have second thoughts about, say, the “three strikes” law (1994’s Proposition 184), it’s their chance for a do-over – or a do-away.

Other shortcomings in California’s initiative process need correcting. Returning some measures to the June primary could ease ballot overcrowding in higher-turnout presidential election years. As with California’s experiment in redistricting reform, handing the title-and-summary power from a partisan attorney general to an independent citizens panel might help remove some of the political taint from the initiative process.

And if none of this pleases you? There’s still space on the 2016 ballot for an initiative banning more columns on initiative reform.

Bill Whalen is a Hoover Institution research fellow and former speechwriter for Gov. Pete Wilson. Whalen can be reached at