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California Ballot Metrics: What You Need to Know

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From left to right, then US Sens. Hiram Johnson of California, William Borah of Idaho, and Joseph T. Robinson of Arkansas in Washington, DC, January 17, 1935. As governor, Johnson signed the California referendum initiative and law. AP Photo

California is one of 24 states with an initiative process.

Although the state has had a way for citizens to initiate laws since 1898, it officially passed the voting initiative process after a special election on October 10, 1911, when then-Governor. Hiram Johnson has enshrined in law the ability for voters to recall elected officials, repeal laws by referendum, and enact state laws by initiative.

The push for more direct democracy was part of a movement across the United States in the late 1800s for social and political reform. In California, it was fueled by concerns about the influence the Southern Pacific Railroad and other “wealthy” interests had over the legislature.

From 1911 to the last electoral measures of November 2020, there have been 2,068 initiatives validated for the collection of signatures. Of these, 392, or about 19%, qualified for the ballot. And of those who voted, 137, or 35%, were approved by voters, including 39 constitutional amendments.

The most measures on one slip? 48 in 1914, followed by 45 in 1990 and 41 in 1988.

What is the difference between a referendum and an initiative?

A referendum allows voters to approve or reject a law passed by the Legislative Assembly, with a few exceptions: “emergency” laws necessary for public peace, health or safety; laws calling for elections; or laws that levy taxes or provide credits for current expenses.

Initiatives, more common than referendums, propose new statutes, as well as amendments to the California constitution. Since 2011, initiatives can only appear on the ballot for the November legislative elections.

In most cases, initiatives and referendums share the same signature requirements – at least 5% of the total votes cast for gubernatorial office in the last election. A constitutional amendment initiative, however, requires at least 8% of the total votes cast in the last gubernatorial election.

Currently, that’s a minimum of 623,212 signatures for a status initiative, and 997,139 for a constitution change initiative.