Most California voters express confidence in their collective wisdom when it comes to making public policy at the ballot box. They are also firm in their belief that voters’ past decisions on a range of initiatives have had good outcomes. These May PPIC Survey findings come at a time when voters ponder their 2022 election choices and legislators weigh the potential of ballot measures that would alter voters’ past decisions. Our findings underscore the political perils of efforts to change course on citizens’ initiatives that have already passed.
First and foremost, a majority of California likely voters (55%) think that public policy decisions made through the citizens’ initiative process are “probably better” than those made by the governor and state legislature. Majorities have consistently held this perception in PPIC surveys since October 2000 (54%). Today, about half or more across the state’s regions and demographic groups think that voters are probably better than their state elected officials are at making policy. In the context of having a Democratic governor and a Democratic legislative supermajority, Republicans (65%) and independents (65%) are much more likely (47% Democrats) to hold this favorable view of voters’ decisionmaking.
California voters had a major impact on the format of the June primary ballot now in their hands. Much to the chagrin of party leaders, by passing Proposition 14 in 2010 (54% yes) voters established that all candidates for state and congressional elections—regardless of party affiliation—are listed on a single primary ballot. The top two vote getters—again, regardless of party affiliation—advance to the general election. Today, 62% of California likely voters say that Proposition 14 has been mostly a “good thing.” Results were similar five and ten years ago (60% December 2017, 59% December 2012). Currently, this top-two system garners support from about half or more across partisan groups (67% Democrats, 49% Republicans, 67% independents) and majorities across regions and demographic groups.
Another major political reform passed by the voters also continues to have majority support. Proposition 11, passed in 2008 (51% yes), established a citizens’ commission to redraw the physical boundaries of the state’s voting districts rather than rely on the state legislature and governor to do so. Today, 53% of California likely voters think that Proposition 11 has been mostly a “good thing.” A decade ago, a majority (59% December 2012) held the same view. Currently, pluralities across parties (56% Democrats, 46% Republicans, 61% Independents) and about half or more across regions and demographic groups continue to support the decision voters made 14 years ago.
We also asked about Proposition 13—the consequential property tax reform that voters passed in 1978 (65% yes). Today, 64% of California likely voters say that passing Proposition 13 turned out to be mostly a “good thing.” Majorities have consistently held this positive view since we first asked this question (65% February 2003). Even now, in these politically divided times, majorities across political parties (56% Democrats, 75% Republicans, 70% independents) and demographic groups, and about half or more across regions, see Proposition 13 in a positive light.
About one in three citizens’ initiatives have passed since the voters approved this direct democracy tool in 1911. Californians do not see this system as perfect: our surveys find that many agree that the wording of citizens’ initiatives is “often too complicated and confusing” and that the initiative process today is controlled “a lot” by special interests. However, ballot initiatives that have passed—such as Propositions 11, 13, and 14—are held in high esteem because of ongoing support for their ideals, as well as voters’ continued faith in their own decisions.
Given this context, legislators face an uphill battle when asking voters to change laws set by past initiatives. For instance, a 2010 ballot initiative was aimed at repealing the redistricting commission—and it failed (59% no). Another initiative was placed on the 2020 ballot to change elements of Proposition 13—and it failed, too (52% no).
As the state considers what to do with a huge state budget surplus, there is now talk of a legislative constitutional amendment that would alter the terms of the state spending limit and tax refunds (aka the Gann limit) created by Proposition 4 in 1979 (74% yes). And in the wake of the 2021 governor’s recall, a legislative constitutional amendment (SCA 6) would change some election rules.
Time will tell, but legislators have their work cut out for them to convince voters—who believe they know best—that they have a better way.