Why It Just Got A Lot Harder To Get a Proposition On California's Ballot

Mailboxes overflow with political ads — many of them bankrolled by special interests — during election season. California's initiative process has come to be dominated by big spending on marketing and signature-gathering. (Adriene Hill/California Dream)

Hundreds of thousands of additional signatures are now required for a proposition to make the California ballot — making it harder and more expensive to place a measure directly before voters.

Why?

State law ties the signatures needed to the number of votes cast in the most recent gubernatorial election. And this year, turnout was strong.

Here's the trend in signature requirements over more than a century:

State elections law requires:

  • Signatures from 8 percent of votes cast in the last gubernatorial election to qualify constitutional amendments for the ballot.
  • Signatures from 5 percent of votes cast in the last gubernatorial election to qualify proposed statutes and veto campaigns for the ballot.

With nearly 12.5 million votes cast for governor this year, backers of constitutional amendments will now need to collect 997,139 signatures to get on the ballot, up from 585,407. For other initiatives, the number of signatures needed jumps to 623,212 from 365,880.

Some observers of California's initiative process worry November's strong turnout could have the paradoxical effect of hurting grassroots efforts. With more and more signatures required, special interests and the ultra-wealthy could be further cemented as the drivers of ballot measures.

"Campaigns that cannot find large donors to back their cause will have a much more difficult time collecting enough signatures," said Ryan Byrne of the politics website Ballotpedia. That trend could accelearate in 2020 and 2022, he added.

Another change?

"A lot of campaign consultants will make more money," said Michael Salerno, professor emeritus at UC Hastings. Political consultants are typically paid on a per-signature basis, and more signatures means more business.

The increase is also great news for signature gatherers, a fixture outside grocery stores across the Golden State. While they don't make the big bucks of political consultants, some can net $25 an hour.

THE BACKSTORY

The jump in required signatures is the second largest percentage increase in state history, according to Ballotpedia's Byrne.

The biggest-ever increase came after the 1914 gubernatorial election, the first in which women could cast a ballot.

The percent of registered voters needed to qualify a measure for the ballot is also set to reach the highest level since the 1980s. (This chart uses the percent of registered voters — a bigger pool than the number of voters who actually cast a ballot.)

The requirements go into effect today, when the Secretary of State certifies the election results.

They will not impact any of the efforts currently gathering signatures for the 2020 ballot, which are allowed to use number from when backers submit their proposed laws to the Attorney General. Potential blockbusters such as a tax on sugary drinks, the overturn of bail reform, and the elimination of high-speed rail are all currently in the signuature-gathering stage.

For UC Hastings' Salerno, a critic of the initiative process, the higher requirements going forward just underscrore what's long been true.

"It's pretty difficult for a public, you know, interest group as opposed to a private interest group to get something on the ballot," he said. "The only saving grace of the initiative processes is most of them fail."


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