Real initiative reform coming soon to a ballot near you

Nicolas Berggruen
Nicolas Berggruen

In the wake of an election where experts projected record-low voter turnout across California, it’s no surprise that those same experts are now sifting through the electoral rubble and attempting to identify changes to the system that might reignite voter interest and increase participation.

One common denominator in these aptly named “postmortems” has been a renewed critique of California’s initiative system. This year’s underwhelming and relatively short ballot featured several high-dollar battles over complex, low-awareness issues, which were more likely to alienate, not attract, voters.

More than 100 years and almost 400 ballot measures after being established, our initiative process remains extremely popular with voters who value having a direct role in the lawmaking process. But, little by little, the initiative process has become a tool for the big-money special interests it was intended to circumvent.

As a result, past ballots have been riddled with arcane, single-interest skirmishes supported by expensive professional signature-gathering efforts and misleading advertising campaigns and mailers. Measures have been specifically designed to contradict competing initiatives – or to mask the purposes and consequences to confuse and mislead voters. Even well-intentioned efforts have been marred by drafting errors, poor legal reasoning and unintended policy outcomes from proposals not vetted or analyzed by experts. Worse, some initiatives have been abandoned by their proposers even after they qualify – or superseded by newer proposals or compromises that clutter ballots and frustrate voters.

None of this has been lost on the public. According to the Public Policy Institute of California, 8 in 10 California voters have expressed support for changing California’s initiative process. A survey conducted this year indicates 83 percent of Californians agree that initiative wording is too complicated and confusing; 84 percent favor increasing public disclosure of funding sources for signature gathering and initiative campaigns; and 77 percent support a review process to help avoid legal problems and drafting errors.

In spite of the widespread support for improvements, the initiative process had been stubbornly resistant to change. Until now. This fall, Gov. Jerry Brown signed Senate Bill 1253 – the Ballot Initiative Transparency Act – into law, becoming the first major reform of the century-old democratic process.

The new law creates a window for legislative hearings on initiatives to take place months before Election Day – offering ample time for legislative analysis, open debate, compromise and collaboration. The new law creates processes for lawmakers and proponents of ballot measures to take comments from the public, and make changes and corrections for errors and unintended consequences that may surface before ballots go to the voters. And the new law gives initiative backers the ability to withdraw a measure after petitions and signatures are submitted if their efforts are no longer viable or relevant or a legislative compromise has been achieved.

Together, these reforms will improve the quality of our initiatives and our direct participation. They create what in political science circles is known as an “indirect initiative effect” – a role for the Legislature to foster public comment and active debate, to highlight errors and unintended consequences and fix them, and perhaps to craft policy solutions via legislation.

SB 1253 contains other changes intended to improve voter engagement and confidence as well. It extends the time for signature gathering to support grassroots signature collection. It pushes the secretary of state to feature the top funders of proposed initiatives in online ballot materials. And it gives voters a means to opt out of receiving wasteful print materials.

We’re still less than a month past the elections, and already talk has turned to the 2016 races and what ballot measures may come before voters. Fortunately, we can look forward to voting on those measures with the prospect that California’s cherished right of direct and informed participation will come closer to fulfilling its promise.

Nicolas Berggruen is the founder of the Berggruen Institute on Governance and chairman of Think Long for California. Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, is the outgoing president pro tempore of the California state Senate and author of SB 1253.