Independent, objective, nonpartisan research
Press Release · November 16, 1998

Initiative Process: Money Doesn’t Buy Success at Ballot Box

In the weeks following the general election, many media stories have focused public attention on the vast sums spent on political advertising, most notably the millions devoted to a small number of initiatives. These huge financial expenditures have led many political observers to conclude that California’s initiative process has been captured and manipulated by wealthy special interests. Citizen initiatives sponsored by grassroots organizations are increasingly threatened, they argue, in an era when staggering amounts are spent by economic powers — such as tobacco interests or the insurance industry — to influence outcomes at the ballot box.

However, in a soon-to-be-published report for the Public Policy Institute of California, Interest Group Influence in the California Initiative Process, researcher Elisabeth Gerber finds just the opposite. Not only do economic groups lack the unbridled influence commonly claimed by critics of the initiative process, the millions they pour into special interest campaigns may even be self-defeating, suggesting to voters that the proposed legislation is unlikely to be in their own interest.

Given the current debate, I thought it would be helpful to send you an advance copy of this important report. A number of Gerber’s findings challenge the conventional wisdom, including:

  • Economic interests are less successful than citizen groups in passing initiatives. They devote few of their resources to support initiatives, and the initiatives they do support rarely pass. Gerber’s analysis of 31 ballot measures between 1988 and 1990 revealed that only 22 percent of initiatives backed by economic groups passed, in contrast to a 60 percent success rate for citizen-supported ballot measures.
  • Economic interests, which vastly outspend citizen groups, devote the bulk of their resources to defeating initiatives rather than supporting them. Both citizen and economic groups are moderately successful in blocking initiatives.

Public Policy Institute of California