Ballot Measures

By Adam Nagourney
Sept 5, 2016

LOS ANGELES — Pity the California voter.

Seventeen voter initiatives are on the state ballot in November, a glut of citizen-lawmaking that could, among other things, end the death penalty, legalize recreational marijuana, impose a tax surcharge on the wealthy and place limits on prescription drug costs.

And considering that there really is no race for president in this overwhelmingly Democratic state, this is where the action is going to be through Election Day. By the time voters make it to the polls, analysts say, they are likely to have endured close to $100 million in television advertisements making the yea or nay case for these measures, usually framed in the most alarming sort of way.

California is a state with a long tradition of making law at the ballot box, but the last time there were this many initiatives was 2000. And that does not even account for local initiatives like a Los Angeles County proposal to raise the sales tax to pay for mass transit or a soda tax in San Francisco.

“The California ballot can be intimidating — there’s a lot on it,” said Thomas F. Steyer, the billionaire environmentalist who is financing a $2-a-pack cigarette tax antismoking initiative, known as Proposition 56. “It’s hard to stay on top of all of it, particularly because professional wordsmiths try to confuse voters all the time. There is an inclination for a lot of voters not to want to vote for initiatives.”

What follows is an attempt to counteract some of the confusion.
Doesn’t California have a State Legislature to deal with these kinds of things?

California most certainly does have a Legislature, and because both houses are controlled by Democrats and Gov. Jerry Brown is a Democrat, it is arguably one of the most productive statehouses in the country.

But the initiative process has been part of the political culture here since the rise of the Progressive movement in the last century. It was championed by Gov. Hiram Johnson, who served from 1911 to 1917, as a way for the average citizen to counteract the influence of business in Sacramento.

Some of the most consequential legislation in this state’s history has been enacted this way: most famously, Proposition 13, which put a cap on property tax increases and required a two-thirds vote by the Legislature to raise taxes.

For anyone with money and political savvy, the ballot initiative has been an effective way to work around a balky Legislature. And the only way to change or repeal an initiative is to go back to voters.

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