May 16, 2016
California voters this fall will likely wade through the longest list of state propositions since Bill Clinton was president, a sizable batch of proposed laws that is likely to spark a record amount of campaign spending.
A review of election records and interviews with almost a dozen political consultants confirms that as many as 18 propositions — from legalizing marijuana to redirecting the proceeds of a fee on paper bags — will land on the Nov. 8 statewide ballot.
“I think it’s overwhelming,” said Cristina Uribe, state director of the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, a national nonprofit that advocates for politically progressive ballot measures.
This week marks an unofficial but closely watched deadline for backers of the fall’s bumper crop of propositions. Campaigns will submit the final voter signatures gathered for initiatives, and elections officials will then need several weeks to verify those signatures. Secretary of State Alex Padilla must certify the final list by June 30.
There are a number of reasons for the glut of proposals, including a 2011 law that moved all ballot initiatives to November elections.
The 18 measures have the political or financial resources to make it to the ballot, but the final number depends on what happens over the next six weeks. The initiative process was loosened in 2014 for proponents to withdraw a fully vetted measure even after it earned a spot on the ballot.
It was a change designed to encourage compromise, but one that could also mean some of the proposals are little more than political bargaining chips.
“It injects a whole new level — a higher level — of negotiation, pressure and threats,” said David Townsend, a longtime Democratic political consultant.
Of the 18 potential measures, seven have already earned a place on the November ballot. Nine more are in the process of signature verification and legislators are likely to craft the final proposal in the next few weeks.
One of the most prominent proposals won’t finish its signature drive until late this week: Gov. Jerry Brown’s measure to revamp prison parole and juvenile justice laws.
“We’re cautiously optimistic,” said Dan Newman, a spokesman for Brown’s campaign.
Should the governor’s team complete its work in time — and assuming the California Supreme Court removes a legal obstacle to his initiative — it will be the final piece of a complex puzzle of voter choices.
“It’s a really wide and varying ballot,” said Fiona Hutton, a Los Angeles public affairs strategist who has worked on a number of statewide campaigns. “A lot of these are arcane policy questions.”
Even so, a few with prominent causes or champions will stand out. Tops on that list may be the initiative to fully legalize marijuana, backed by Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, Facebook co-founder Sean Parker and a long list of drug policy reformers.
Newsom also is the leading voice behind a November measure to impose new background checks on the sale of firearm ammunition. And he’s a prominent supporter, along with billionaire activist Tom Steyer, of a ballot measure to raise California’s tobacco tax by $2 per pack.
The tobacco tax campaign plans to submit its signatures by the end of the day on Monday.
Legislators, too, have added to the fall ballot’s largesse. They have placed one proposal on the ballot for voters to repeal the provisions of the 1998 initiative that limited bilingual education, Proposition 227. Last week, lawmakers also moved forward on placing another measure on the ballot: an advisory measure on whether Congress should overturn the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling in the Citizens United case, a landmark decision that loosened campaign finance laws.
But even supporters have worried about adding it to the already long list of November propositions.
“We need to be very careful to not clutter the ballot,” Assemblyman Matt Dababneh (D-Encino) said during debate on the measure last week.
There are no guarantees that voters will want, or be able, to make their way through all of the state propositions. New voters in particular may be overwhelmed by a ballot that could grow longer still in some California communities considering their own local measures. And even frequent voters may not remember California’s longest ballots in recent times, from the 16 statewide measures in November 2004 to the 20 propositions on the ballot in March 2000.
“Unlike candidates, where there are signals around partisanship or ideology,” said Uribe, “what we know is that if people don’t know something or are confused, they are likely to skip it or just vote ‘no’.”
Some of the long list of viable propositions will have an easier time than others when it comes to voters grasping the impact.
Opponents of the death penalty, led by “MASH” actor Mike Farrell, appear to have gathered enough signatures on their initiative to repeal capital punishment. Pro-death penalty groups are poised to qualify a measure that would expedite the cases through the legal system.
Not all ballot measures will be as sweeping in their impact. One of the first to qualify was a proposed state law requiring actors in adult films to wear condoms during sex scenes, a proposition written by the Los Angeles based AIDS Healthcare Foundation.
Campaigns that began their signature-gathering process in just the last few months have paid a premium to make it to the ballot, in some cases offering petition circulators $5 or more for every voter signature collected.
“It’s an unprecedented year for signature gathering,” said Newman, the governor’s initiative campaign spokesman.
And while groups ranging from educators to big business to government reformers are counting on voters weighing in, few dispute that the historic race to succeed President Obama will be the reason many show up and cast a ballot this fall.
They may be less enthused about then sorting through and answering 18 complicated policy questions.
“Once you get past the presidential,” said Uribe, “many voters will call it a day.”