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(Dan Carino
Understanding California Propositions
Let's explore how California's propositions work, how amendments, referendums and bonds get on the ballot, and why big spending deserves a close look.
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Propositions, also known as ballot measures, are a way for voters in California to directly change laws. They give people the power to have a say in what the government does.

Statewide propositions pass with a simple majority vote. That means you can help enact, amend and repeal laws by casting your ballot and getting your community involved.

But even though propositions are supposed to be the way that everyday citizens change laws, powerful players are often driving them. It’s essential to pay close attention to not just what is on the ballot, but why — and who got it there.

This election, voters will cast their ballots for seven statewide ballot measures. Some of them are pretty complicated, and they all include plenty of jargon. Our goal at Voter Game Plan is to help you understand what each of these ballot measures is actually about and who is behind them. But first, here’s what you need to know about how propositions work.

How Do They Get On The Ballot?

It depends on what kind of proposition they are. There are two kinds: legislative measures and initiative measures.

Legislative measures: The state legislature has the authority to place propositions on the ballot after it reaches a majority vote. In this election cycle, only one ballot measure falls under this category: Proposition 1, which would protect the right to an abortion and access to contraceptives by amending the California Constitution if it passes. Legislative measures can also be described as legislatively “referred” amendments or statutes. Here’s what the jargon means:

  • Legislative constitutional amendments: These measures seek to change parts of the California Constitution by either proposing new laws or refining existing ones.
  • Legislative statutes: Similarly, these ballot measures also add or adjust laws, but they can’t conflict with the state or federal constitution. You’ll see legislative statutes most commonly with lower-ticket measures (e.g. Proposition 7 in 2020, which sought to change daylight savings time).

Initiative measures: Non-politicians can get statewide measures on the ballot through the initiative process. To get started, someone, usually a lawyer, writes the measure. Then they have to gather signatures of support from the public.

Some initiatives end here because they fail to collect the required number of signatures to make it on the ballot or fall below that threshold when some signatures are declared invalid. This year, six of the seven propositions came from the initiative process. Here’s a breakdown of the different ways a measure can make it on the ballot outside of processes within the state legislature:

  • Initiative constitutional amendments: Similar to legislative amendments, non-politicians have the chance to shape the California Constitution. This year, proponents needed to gather nearly a million valid signatures to make the ballot. (That number changes every gubernatorial election, based on a percentage of how many votes were cast for governor.)
  • Initiative statutes: Voters can amend statutes too, but the valid signature requirement is about a third less. 
  • Referendums: A referendum is a way for voters to approve or reject a statute enacted by the state legislature — in other words, a way that people can try to repeal a law. Referendums are limited in scope. They typically address issues involving government oversight and aren’t allowed when laws relate to topics like elections, tax levies or public emergencies. Referendums need the same number of valid signatures as initiative statutes to qualify. This year, there’s one referendum on the ballot: Proposition 31, which asks voters to approve or reject a state law banning the sale of several types of flavored tobacco products.

Bond measures: The California Constitution requires the legislature to get voter approval before they can borrow any amount above $300,000 in general obligation bonds — which are mainly paid back through taxation — but bonds can also come from the initiative process. The measures ask voters to approve or deny spending for large projects such as water and education infrastructure.

Keep in mind that in addition to statewide ballot measures, you might also have local measures on your ballot. For example, L.A. County Supervisors placed a county charter amendment on the ballot that asks residents for authority to remove an elected sheriff. The city of L.A. also has three ballot measures that will go before voters.

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How Are Ballot Titles Decided?

Titles are a big deal. They give voters a sense of what a “yes” or “no” vote actually does, even if they are full of jargon and don’t capture the full effect of what will happen if a ballot item passes. And for many voters, the title and the language of a ballot measure might be the only thing they ever see.

A ballot measure goes through multiple titles before reaching our ballots.

The first name is suggested by the initiative’s proponents. As you might expect, this first title can be a bit biased. It usually reflects how proponents want voters to view a measure, with the hope that it will convince voters to pass it. Proponents have five days after a public comment period to submit amendments that are reasonably appropriate for the original measure.

Next comes the “circulating title,” which you’ll see on those signature petitions. The Office of the Attorney General writes this title along with a description. In deciding the name, they take into consideration fiscal analysis, public comment and the measure’s complete text, according to the office. Their task is to stay neutral and summarize the proposition’s main points, though critics have demanded more fairness.

The final name is the official ballot title. The attorney general’s office has a smaller word count this round, so they write a new summary and ballot label. But the aim for neutrality and accuracy still remains. The secretary of state’s office is required to make the title and summary public for at least 20 days. During that time, voters have the chance to seek court-ordered changes to the language (e.g. if a judge finds the title is misleading). No challenges have been raised this year.

Here’s an example of how the titles evolved with Proposition 22, which voters passed in 2020 to keep app-based drivers at companies like Uber and Lyft classified as independent contractors.

  • The proponent’s suggested title: “Protect App-Based Drivers and Services Act.”
  • The attorney general’s circulating title: “Changes Employment Classification Rules For App-Based Transportation And Delivery Drivers. Initiative Statute.”
  • The attorney general’s final ballot title: “Exempts App-Based Transportation And Delivery Companies From Providing Employee Benefits To Certain Drivers. Initiative Statute.”

The three names all described the same measure, but the framing changed a lot by the end.

The attorney general’s office also names legislative propositions, but there’s no suggested title from lawmakers.

How Is Financial Impact Decided?

Every ballot measure includes how much money a change is projected to cost or generate. The California Legislative Analyst’s Office is responsible for crunching those numbers with the attorney general’s office.

State law requires the offices to assess potential impacts on state and local finances before initiatives are circulated for signatures. That’s the “fiscal impact statement” you see on your ballot with each measure. They also gather information to help voters understand the backdrop of the proposition and its main points. All of these reports are public.

The legislative analyst’s office uses multiple methods to figure out costs and revenue, including academic research, studying effects in other jurisdictions facing similar changes, running economic models, and talking with a measure’s proponents and opponents to consider their arguments about fiscal impact.

In some cases, it’s not possible to know in advance the full extent of a ballot measure’s financial impact on the state. For example, revenue for Proposition 26 (a sports betting measure on the ballot for November election) is largely dependent on contributions set up in new state and tribal agreements, which haven’t been ratified yet. The legislative analyst’s office noted that in its public report.

That’s why some financial impact statements are pretty vague about dollar amounts. In Proposition 26’s case, the office intentionally avoided precision by describing its potential to increase state revenue as “possibly reaching tens of millions of dollars.”

Does Big Spending Make A Difference?

In almost all cases, groups that support or oppose certain ballot measures get contributions from wealthy donors and corporations that have a reason for wanting to see a measure pass or fail.

Those contributions allow supporters to flood you with TV ads, billboards, flyers, and text messages in an attempt to shape your perception of a proposition.

Campaign finance laws require these groups to report how much money they receive. You can access that information on the state website Cal-Access.

In 2020, gig companies such as Uber were accused of trying to buy support for Proposition 22. They spent more than $200 million on advertising that supported the ballot measure, which would prevent app-based drivers from being classified as employees. It was the most that had ever been spent on a ballot measure at that time. Voters passed the proposition.

This election cycle has already eclipsed that spending. By September, Propositions 26 and 27, related initiatives about sports betting, had already become the most expensive measures in California history.

If you’re trying to decide how to vote on a measure, start by taking a close look at where the money is coming from. That information can be hard for the average voter to track down, so as you read our guides to each of the ballot measures, you’ll find a list of the biggest spenders for and against the measure.

What Happens If Two Propositions Contradict Each Other?

This could come up with the two sports betting propositions on the ballot this year. If it does, the measure that receives the most votes is supposed to supersede the other one — but it’s not always clear-cut. In those cases, a judge makes the final call.

Video Explainer

More Voter Guides

City of Los Angeles

L.A. County

  • Sheriff: Compare the two candidates for L.A. County sheriff
  • Water Agencies: Learn what they do and what to look for in a candidate

How to evaluate judges

California propositions

  • Propositions 26 and 27: The difference between the sports betting ballot measures
  • Proposition 29: Why kidney dialysis is on your ballot for the third time
  • Proposition 30: Why Lyft is the biggest funder of this ballot measure

Head to the Voter Game Plan homepage for guides to the rest of your ballot.