California Public Policy and Citizen Participation/Chapter Three

< California Public Policy and Citizen Participation

In California, a ballot is a proposed law that is submitted to the electorate for approval in a direct vote (or plebiscite). It may take the form of a constitutional amendment or an ordinary statute. A ballot proposition may be proposed by the California State Legislature or by a petition signed by members of the public under the initiative system. In California a vote on a measure referred to voters by the legislature is a mandatory referendum; a vote to veto a law that has already been adopted by the legislature is an optional referendum or "people's veto"; the process of proposing laws by petition is the initiative.


Referenda have been a part of the Constitution of California since 1849. The initiative and optional (or facultative) referendum were introduced in 1911, by a constitutional amendment called California Proposition 7 (1911). There are three forms of direct democracy in California.

Mandatory referendumEdit

The State Legislature may pass an act which is signed by the Governor of California, proposing a state constitutional amendment, which is then submitted to the voters as a referendum at the next statewide election. If more than 50% of the voters approve the referendum then the constitutional amendment is approved and goes into effect.

Optional referendumEdit

Laws already adopted by the state legislature may be vetoed by means of a referendum. To qualify a referendum for inclusion on the ballot, a referendum petition must have been signed by at least five per cent of the number of voters in the previous gubernatorial election. This is also known as a "petition referendum" or "people's veto".


A ballot proposition enacted by the initiative process may alter the State constitution, or amend the ordinary laws of the state, or do both. An initiative is brought about by writing a proposed law as a petition, and submitting the petition to the [[California Attorney General along with a submission fee (in 2004 this was $200), and obtaining signatures on petitions from registered voters amounting to 8% (for a constitutional amendment) or 5% (for a statute) of the number of people who voted in the most recent election for governor. The signed petitions are then sent to the Secretary of State of California for validation of signatures.

Due to duplicate signing or invalid signatures, usually at least 50% more than the legal minimum number of signatures are collected to compensate for possible invalidated signatures. If the number of validated signatures is more than the minimum number required, the proposed initiative measure is submitted to the voters, similar to a referendum as noted above. If the proposition is approved by more than 50% of all voters who vote, it becomes a part of the state constitution (if it is a proposed amendment) or the state's statutes (if it is a proposed statute) in the same manner and having the same legal effect as if it had been passed by the state legislature and signed by the governor.

In order to pass, the "yes" votes on a proposition must exceed the "no" votes. Ballots which record neither a "yes" nor a "no" on the proposition are ignored in determining the outcome. In other words, the majority of voters required for passage refers to a majority of those voting on that proposition, rather than a majority of those voting in the election held at the same time or a majority of those who are registered to vote.

Originally, initiative and referendum petitions were given a number starting at one each year. This tended to be confusing as often famous initiatives such as California Proposition 13(of 1978) might be confused with another initiative in a later year if there were more than twelve proposals on the ballot in any given year. Starting in 1982, the proposition numbers were not re-used but would continue to increment until at least a decade had passed from when a particular one had appeared on the ballot, eventually resulting in proposition numbers exceeding 200. Starting with the 1998 ballot, the count has been reset back to one; it will now be reset every ten years.[1]

  1. California Attorney General's Office Initiative Guide