Let’s begin to return direct democracy back to the people

California’s November ballot is dizzying, filled with the presidential contest, the U.S. Senate and legislative races, and all the local contests.

But this year’s ballot doesn’t end there. It’s cluttered with 17 ballot measures on topics ranging from the death penalty and marijuana to condoms in adult films and prescription drugs.

With these 17 measures comes often misleading television and radio ads from now through Election Day. Glossy fliers will fill our mailboxes. It’s nearly impossible for Californians to sort out the truth about these measures and make informed decisions at the ballot box given the $150 million-plus that wealthy backers of initiatives are spending to push their agendas.

It’s a far cry from what Gov. Hiram Johnson intended. Johnson, who governed California from 1911-1917, believed the initiative process would be a way for ordinary folks to have a voice in our democracy.

Initiatives were to counterbalance the influence of special interests in the Capitol, and help weed out corruption and cronyism. But over the years, direct democracy has been perverted by wealthy funders who game the system.

Many of the initiatives aren’t there because of popular demand. They’re there because a multimillionaire paid for signature gatherers to place a measure on the ballot. Volunteers who once were expected to organize support for a measure by devoting time, energy, and passion toward a cause have been replaced.

Wealthy individuals and corporations hire signature gathering firms that run the show. Since 2006, more than $100 million has been spent on gathering signatures for statewide propositions in California. Petition circulators are paid up to $7 for each signature. Volunteers and grass-roots support are often nowhere to be found, and many circulators openly mislead potential signers.

The result of this explosion in influence of paid signature gatherers is a weakening of the voice of average Californians, the exact opposite of what Johnson intended.

A bill that sits on Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk seeks to give a voice back to the people by requiring that each proposition placed on the ballot has the grass-roots support of some volunteer signature gatherers.

SB 1094 authored by Sen. Ed Hernandez, D-West Covina, would require that 5 percent of all signatures submitted to qualify statewide ballot measures be gathered by volunteers.

Paid circulators could be used, but ballot measures will only qualify if at least 5 percent of all valid signatures collected were submitted by people who were not paid solely for their signature gathering efforts.

This reform would preserve the integrity of the initiative process and safeguard the public from fraud and deceit in signature gathering. Five percent may not seem like much, but considering some propositions have no grass-roots support, the reform would have a significant effect.

Direct democracy is a good thing. It gives voters a voice in setting policy in the Capitol. But currently billionaires are drowning out the voices of voters by paying millions of dollars to push their own pet projects, often to the detriment of Californians.

By signing SB 1094, Brown can ensure that ballot measures have at least some grass-roots support, and can begin to give direct democracy back to the people.

Art Pulaski is executive secretary-treasurer of the California Labor Federation. He can be reached at