California’s three major tools of direct democracy—the initiative, the recall, and the referendum—were established more than 100 years ago to provide the public with a greater role in decision making. Much recent activity in election reform has focused on the initiative and the recall, but referendum reform is now working its way through the legislature. Where do Californians stand on these issues? Most like the referendum, but see its flaws, and favor the proposed reforms.
Direct democracy is popular. Californians have used it quite often to approve new laws (137 initiatives), occasionally to remove state officials (1 governor, 5 legislators), and sometimes to reject laws made by the legislature (30 referendums). The 2024 election will ask voters to weigh in on two referendums—one overturning standards for fast-food workers, the other rejecting rules on the placement of oil and gas wells. These challenges come on the heels of referendums on the 2020 and the 2022 ballots. The long and complex referendum process comes with steep costs and bruising political fights.
The legislature is now considering changes to this process with AB 421, designed to curb the uses of the referendum by moneyed interests—mainly through changes to the signature gathering process required to get a referendum on the ballot. This bill is now moving through the legislature and does not require voter approval.
Against this background—and in a highly partisan political time—California likely voters express a surprising level of agreement in their views of the referendum and the proposed reforms.
In the most recent PPIC survey, nearly eight in ten likely voters (79%) say it is a “good thing” that a majority of voters can use the referendum to approve or reject a new law passed by the state legislature. This positive assessment is consistent with the strong majorities who have said that the initiative process is a “good thing” and that the recall process is a “good thing” in PPIC surveys over the past two years. Today, overwhelming majorities across partisan groups (78% Democrats, 79% Republicans, 77% independents) and across age, education, income, and racial/ethnic groups and state regions say that the referendum is a “good thing.”
Despite these glowing reviews, most voters say they have issues with the referendum process.
Too complicated. Three in four California likely voters agree (27% strongly, 50% somewhat) that referendums are often too complicated or confusing for voters to understand what happens if the referendums pass. This negative appraisal is consistent with their overwhelming agreement that the ballot wording of citizens’ initiatives is also too complicated. The referendum has the added complexity of proponents asking for a “no” vote to reject the new law while opponents are asking for a “yes” vote to approve the new state law. Today, overwhelming majorities across partisan groups (78% Democrats, 76% Republicans, 74% independents), regions, and demographic groups agree at least somewhat on this issue.
Controlled by special interests. Nearly all California likely voters say that the referendum process in California is controlled by special interests—either “a lot” (56%) or “some” (40%). This is consistent with views of the initiative process. Today, about half or more across partisan groups (51% Democrats, 63% Republicans, 59% independents), age, gender, income, and racial/ethnic groups and regions say the referendum process in California is controlled “a lot” by special interests. Most groups say that special interests have at least “some” control today.
What about changes to the referendum process? We find majority support for two proposed reforms.
First, 64% of likely voters favor a new law requiring that unpaid volunteers gather at least 10% of the signatures needed to qualify referendums for the ballot. These results are consistent with the solid majority support for similar rules to qualify initiatives for the ballot expressed in past PPIC surveys. Today, majorities across partisan groups (70% Democrats, 56% Republicans, 61% independents), and age, education, gender, income, and racial/ethnic groups and regions are in favor of this reform.
Second, 83% of likely voters favor a new law requiring paid signature gatherers to complete training and wear badges with identification numbers, and to disclose the top three funders of the referendum campaign. The latter is consistent with past PPIC survey findings of majority support for similar disclosures in initiative campaigns. Today, overwhelming majorities across partisan groups (86% Democrats, 76% Republicans, 82% independents), and age, education, gender, income, and racial/ethnic groups and regions are in favor of this reform.
What about the referendum on fast-food workers coming up in 2024?
In an early read, we find that 56% of California likely voters would vote “yes” to approve the law, 40% would vote “no” to reject it, and 4% are not sure. Majorities of Democrats (69%) and independents (57%)—but 27% of Republicans—would vote “yes” to approve it. Proponents currently fall short of a majority “no” vote to reject this law. But both sides have the time and money to make their case. And stay tuned for an early reading on the referendum to reject the law on new oil and gas wells.
In closing, Californians are fans of the referendum process but recognize that it is far from perfect. They favor legislative proposals to reign in special interests at the signature gathering stage. But this reform effort is too late to help voters with the complex and confusing tasks at hand in 2024.
What can be done? A PPIC survey last fall found that high on the voters’ wish list for the 2024 election cycle were town halls on citizens’ initiatives, along with televised debates and the creation of a citizens’ initiative review commission that would study ballot measures, hold public hearings, and make recommendations in the Secretary of State’s Voter Guide. These ideas for improving the initiative process are equally valuable for voters deciding on the two referendums on the 2024 ballot. It is not too late for government, media, and nonprofits to step up and offer voters what they need.
The 2024 presidential election is an opportune time to focus on the issues that planted the seeds for California direct democracy over a century ago—special interests, distrust, partisanship, and populism—and find a better way forward for citizen engagement and voter participation in California’s future.