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Why Does California Have So Many Ballot Propositions, Anyway?

Hiram W. Johnson championed the initiative process in California. (Photo courtesy of Library of Congress)
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Written By Meghan McCarty Carino

California expects voters to make a lot of big choices. We elect representatives, the governor and judges, but we also decide the future of stem cell research in California, how affirmative action should work in the hiring process and if some 17-year-olds should be allowed to vote in the primaries.

Those questions and nine others are being asked of voters on this November's ballot as part of an initiative process that is among the most powerful in the world.

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And the responsibility leaves a lot of California voters, like Cloud Backus (real name, we promise), overwhelmed. "Because I'm not that smart!" she laughed. And, while the longtime teacher might have downplayed her qualifications, it's a familiar sentiment.

Most of us have a hard enough time deciding what to have for dinner on a nightly basis. How is the average person supposed to judge the pros-and-cons of property tax transfers?

Historian William Deverell at the University of Southern California said the system we see in action today might be unrecognizable to those who fought for it more than a century ago. It "has grown quite unwieldy and crude in ways that have perverted the initial vision," he said.

California wasn't the first state to embrace initiatives, but Deverell said we did it on a scale that made us direct democracy trail-blazers.

The movement to put propositions on the ballot in the Golden State was born in the wake of the gilded age, when a small cadre of super wealthy industrialists pulled all the political strings.

"In California, the force that everyone points to is the railroad," said Deverell. "It's a perfect enemy in many respects. It's distant, it's powerful, it's rich and owns all the land."

The railroad, it turns out, also owned California politicians. That is, until Hiram Johnson came along.

Johnson achieved renown as an attorney in San Francisco, fighting graft and political corruption at the turn of the century.

"He had gotten a reputation as a no nonsense, honest political fighter for good," said Deverell.

In 1910, Johnson ran for governor on a platform of opposition to special interests like the railroad.

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"And his race then is sculpted into a kind of Goliath versus David phenomenon where Hiram Johnson is cast as the David going after the corporate behemoths... the Goliath? That was the Southern Pacific," Deverell said.

Like the Old Testament hero, Johnson was successful. He won the governor's seat andushered in a set of constitutional amendments to wrest power from moneyed interests and put it back in the hands of the people.

The ballot initiative process was born.

It all sounds very righteous, but according to journalist Joe Mathews, who wrote the book, "California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It," Johnson was no saint. "He was loud, bombastic, angry, prone to dark moods, [and] personalized disputes," said Matthews.

And Johnson's personal foibles may have had an enduring legacy on our democracy.

"He was a fighter and he saw in initiatives, not some way to bring the people into the process," said Mathews. "He saw them as tools for fights. He sold it as, 'It'll be like a gun in a man's hand.'"

One of Johnson's primary targets was his own father, a state legislator who'd made his career as just the kind of politician Johnson railed against.

"His father campaigned against him and said, 'don't elect this guy,'" said Mathews.

So when Johnson took power and it came time to craft the initiative process, he made it extra difficult for the legislature to fiddle with.

Once an initiative passes in California, the legislature can't touch it, even to make simple, logical improvements (unless the initiative specifically stipulates they can). Otherwise, any change has to go back through the process again, for a vote by the people.

"They kept the initiative process totally separate from the legislative process, which his father and his friends controlled," said Mathews. He thinks that part of what explains California's extreme, inflexible direct democracy systems is Johnson's "daddy issues."

In fact, several of the initiatives on this year's ballot are revisions or reactions to previously passed ones, which leaves many voters like Cloud Backus thoroughly confused.

"There are many unintended consequences. And then we have another initiative to correct the errors. It feels like a crap shoot," she said.

A version of this story was originally published as part of the California Dream Series in 2018 and has been lightly edited to apply to the 2020 election.

The series was a statewide media collaboration of CALmatters, KPBS, KPCC, KQED and Capital Public Radio with support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the James Irvine Foundation.

Gina Pollack contributed to this story.