Initiatives, Referenda and Recall

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Initiatives, Referenda and Recall

The Green Party supports initiative, referendum and recall as positive forms of direct democracy; and seek to retain and enhance these important institutions.

Greens support amending the initiative process to make it easier for regular citizens to qualify a ballot measure through volunteer-based efforts. At the same time, Greens support requiring increased financial disclosure for all ballot measures, in particular identifying major contributors up front.

The strength of the initiative process is that it gives citizens the ability to by-pass the legislature and act directly as legislators themselves, in proposing statutes and amendments to the California Constitution -- an important capacity when elected officials are deemed non-responsive to public concerns.

The weakness of the initiative process is the degree to which all phases are determined by big money, from qualifying for the ballot, to waging a statewide election campaign. It can cost between $1 million and $2 million (or more) just to gather the necessary 500,000 and 700,000 valid signatures to qualify for the ballot (depending on whether the measure is statutory or amends the state Constitution.) Signatures must to be gathered over a relatively short time period, making the signature-gathering task even more costly. Then there is the influential role that for-profit, market-driven private signature-gathering companies play in determining the cost of the initiative process, and hence the functioning of our democracy.

Greens also support flexibility in the initiative process to allow for improving initiative proposals during the drafting phase, and even after measures have been circulated. California currently has the least flexible initiative process in the United States regarding improving initiatives during the process.

Greens see an increased role for referenda, letting the legislature do its work, but giving citizens the ability to reject it after the fact,

Support making it easier in order to promote

Greens also support the role of referenda.

The resulting political culture promotes consensus. Major legislation often goes to the people multiple times before the public approves. (Women’s suffrage, consumer protection legislation, value added taxes and excise taxes all came to pass this way). Lawmakers and the public are thus partners, kicking ideas back and forth. The initiative is seen as a way to make a point; the referendum offers the possibility of truly direct action--the ability to pass or strike down a law. “A referendum is a conversation,” a Swiss election official explained when I observed the country’s referendum elections in 2005. “An initiative is a scream.”

- are bought by being bale to get on the ballot and pass something, rather than the work of going through the legislature.

Greens also look at

Initiatives are more powerful than referenda, but the state constitution makes initiatives easier to qualify for the ballot than referenda (the number of signatures required is the same, and the initiative deadlines are looser) and just as easy to pass at the ballot (a simple majority is all that’s needed). Why go to the trouble of battling the legislature over a law when you can make your own law just as cheaply and take it to the people?

is over 100 years old in California. 

seeks to retain and improve th

These reforms came about because the voters were tired of the Southern Pacific Railroad dominating the California Legislature and blocking any legislation that hurt the train company.

It was established in 1911—along with referenda and recall—as part of the Progressive Movement. There have been over 1,900 initiatives submitted over the past century, with roughly one-fifth qualifying for the ballot.

Past elections have seen an abundance of initiatives that have been variously received by the voters.

Make process more accessible by signatures, especially for volunteers.

Perhaps the most damaging elements of the California initiative process from a Green perspective are the cost and time constraints involved in ballot qualification. In order to qualify, supporters must gather the signatures of five percent of the registered voters within 150 days. In practice, considerable organizational talent and large sums of money are needed to qualify (at least 50 cents per signature). The professionals who gather such signatures are not interested in educating the voters about the issues. They have found that many Californians, when properly approached, will put an initiative on the ballot without knowing more about it than its title. Why go to the trouble of battling the legislature over a law when you can make your own law just as cheaply and take it to the people?

The Green Party supports the use of petitionary referenda as a viable recourse in keeping elected officials sensitive to significant issues and public opinion. The petitionary referenda gives citizens the chance to repeal bills recently passed by the legislature and approved by the governor.

In contrast to the initiative, the use of petitionary referenda is in decline - only six petitionary referenda have qualified for the ballot since 1940. This is due, in part, to the referendum process: proponents of a referendum must gather a number of signatures equal to five percent of the votes cast for the governor in the last election, and must do so within 90 days of the bill's passage. The referendum process excludes certain types of bills such as tax levies, appropriation measures, calls for special elections, etc.

Recall is a procedure that allows citizens to remove and replace a public official before the end of a term of office. Recall differs from another method for removing officials from office – impeachment – in that it is a political device while impeachment is a legal process. Impeachment requires the House to bring specific charges and the Senate to act as a jury. In most of the recall states, specific grounds are not required, and the recall of a state official is by an election. Eighteen states permit the recall of state officials. A recent, high-profile example of the recall process was the recall of California Governor Gray Davis and his replacement with Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2003.

As in the case of the initiative and referendum, the recall process gives citizens a chance to practice grassroots democracy by removing elected officials who are disapproved of by a majority of voters.

Rarely has a recall effort against a state-level officeholder ever qualified for the ballot. It has sometimes been abused by groups seeking political ends other than removing an officeholder who they feel has performed poorly. Also, some citizens simply don't understand the meaning of the term "recall."

The Green Party proposes:


Signature Gathering

- Extend the number of days that a measure could be circulated from 180 days to a full year and/or give initiative sponsors more time if they are using volunteers to gather signatures, rather than paid workers.

- Establish a system of registration and training for signature gatherers.


- Initiative proposals should be written in language that is precise, clear, and understandable and meets standards of readability.

- Establish a mandatory pre-circulation review where initiative sponsors are required to submit draft proposals to an impartial and nonpartisan, official authority, such as the Legislative Analyst’s Office (for statewide measures), for a pre-circulation review of clarity/language, constitutionality/legality, and single subject. The opinion resulting from this pre-circulation review should be made public.

- Initiative proposals should be limited to a single subject. The definition of “single subject” should ensure clear interpretation and strict enforcement.

- Initiatives with provisions that would require funding should specify the sources or method(s) of providing the funding.

- Initiatives should include a provision providing for an automatic review/revote or expiration of the measure, as appropriate.

Title and Summary

- The title and summary should be written by an impartial and non-partisan official authority, such as the Legislative Analyst's Office (for statewide measures).

Approval Thresholds

- An initiative statute, or a legislative statute appearing on the ballot as a referendum, should be approved by a simple majority of those voting on the measure.

- The approval threshold to pass an initiative constitutional amendment should be higher than a simple majority vote; and initiatives amending the constitution must be approved in two consecutive general elections.

- An initiative statute or constitutional amendment that imposes a new requirement for passage of future initiatives should meet the same requirement.

- An initiative statute or constitutional amendment that requires a super-majority vote for passage of future related issues should be required to receive the same super-majority vote approval for its passage.

- An initiative should not be allowed to provide for different outcomes depending upon the percentage of votes cast in its favor.

- Voting on constitutional amendments should only occur at general elections.

Indirect Initiative

- Establish an indirect initiative process option, where a proposed initiative is referred to the legislature after proponents have gathered the required number of signatures; then the legislature has the option to enact, reject or amend the measure; if not enacted by the legislature, proponents may still pursue placement on the ballot for a popular vote.

Allow the Legislature to amend any statutory initiative that is approved by the voters by a two-thirds vote provided the legislative amendments further the purposes of the initiative. Most initiatives today allow such amendments, but some do not. This would reduce the need for another measure to clean up the original initiative


- Conduct a series of televised debates featuring the yes and no sides of initiative campaigns, just as there are pro/con arguments in the voter information guide


Increasing public disclosure of funding sources for signature gathering and initiative campaigns, including

- Require that sponsors of an initiative or referendum and organizations that form a committee to support or oppose a measure be listed by name in the ballot pamphlet, in mailings, and in advertisements.

- Require that principal contributors to an initiative or referendum campaign be listed by name in the ballot pamphlet, in mailings, and in advertisements.

- Require that initiative and referendum committees use names that reflect their true economic or special interest.


Reduce the number of signatures required to qualify a referendum for the ballot to three percent of the votes cast for the governor in the last election.

referendum on a legislative statute—valid signatures numbering 5 percent of the total vote for all candidates for governor in the last gubernatorial election, 90 days to collect signatures.


If appropriate security safeguards are in place, Internet and/or other electronic technology should be allowed for signature gathering.

The Green Party advocates reforming the initiative process:

Extend the period of time for gathering signatures to 180 days.

Require that at least 15% of all signatures be gathered by unpaid volunteers.

Require both proponents and opponents of an initiative to inform the voters about the issues, using government-sponsored means.

9. Post-Election

   a.  Under limited circumstances, the legislature, without approval by the voters, should be allowed to amend a statute adopted by initiative.      Circumstances could include that the amendments are consistent with the original intent of the initiative or are made after a waiting period.

   b.  Approval by the voters should be required to amend constitutional amendments adopted by initiative 
   c.  If two or more initiatives with conflicting provisions pass at the same election, the initiative receiving the greatest number of votes should be enacted.
   d.  Initiative proposals that do not win voter approval should be allowed to appear on subsequent ballots without restriction, if they again meet qualification requirements.

Two elections for a constitutional change.

b. Constitutional challenges to voter-approved initiatives being reviewed in t

   After the legislative hearing, allow the proponents to amend their measure without having to recirculate it, provided the amendments are approved by the Attorney General’s Office as being consistent with the purposes and goals of the original initiative. This proposal would make for better drafted measures.

5. Qualification

    a.  Requirements should be retained for:
        1) direct initiative statute--valid signatures numbering 5 percent of the total vote for all candidates for governor in the gubernatorial election, 150 days to collect signatures;
        2) direct initiatie constitutional amendment--valid signatures numbering 8 percent of the total vote for all candidates for governor in the gubernatorial election, 150 days to collect signatures;
   b.  The filing fee should reflect costs of processing initiative and referendum proposals.
   c.  No requirement for geographic distribution should be imposed.
   d.  Solicitation of signatures and campaign funds in the same mailing should be allowed.

6. Campaign

   a.  Realistic limits should be imposed on contributions by individuals and groups to initiative and referendum campaigns.
   b.  Realistic limits should be imposed on expenditures by individuals and groups in initiative and referendum campaigns.
   c.  There should be provision for free time for radio and TV information programs for initiative campaigns.
   d.  No public financing should be provided for initiative and referendum campaigns.
   e.  The legislature should conduct public hearings on initiative and referendum proposals around the state, with adequate public notice.
   f.  Ballot pamphlet analyses of initiative and referendum measures should be written for the reading level of the average citizen.
   g.  The ballot label and ballot pamphlet should clearly indicate the effect of a yes vote and a no vote.


Californian politicians and interests groups are now so well-armed that the state is like a shooting range that never closes. Initiatives are as common as sunshine, with dozens filed each year (including a record 152 in 2005). Since Johnson’s time, more than 105 initiatives have been approved by voters. In contrast, referenda -- a ballot measure that allows citizens to reverse an act of the legislature -- are rare. Only 60 have been filed since 1914, and only 14 have been successful. Why the disparity? c

The Swiss system is set up differently. At its center is not the initiative but the referendum. Switzerland makes initiatives twice as hard to qualify as referendum (100,000 signatures vs. 50,000 signatures) and much harder to pass. A referendum needs only a simple majority, but an initiative must achieve a “double majority” to succeed -- a majority of the popular vote, and a majority approval in the country’s 23 cantons, or provinces. Initiatives are thus much rarer than referenda because they so often fail -- the success rate is just 9 percent. (In California this decade, a historically difficult time for passing initiatives, voters have approved 30 percent of initiatives). Over the last century, Switzerland and California have had almost the exact same number of signature-qualified ballot measures, but most of the Swiss measures are referenda.

The Green Party recommends that we reactivate the referendum process:

Require companies doing business in the California initiative industry to set aside a portion of their revenues and facilities for use by groups unable to pay full fare for such services.


The Green Party proposes simplifying the recall process:

Substitute the term "removal" for "recall."

Require all signatures for a removal effort be obtained through voluntary solicitation.