Ballot Initiatives. With enough bribery, the Southern Pacific Railroad controlled California’s state government for decades. Citizens clamored for change. That came in 1910 with the election of Governor Hiram Johnson and other reformers who submitted reforms for citizen approval. The most significant reform gave direct legislative power to citizens. The initiative system was approved and went into effect in 1911—the first of its kind in the nation.
The Process. Getting a proposition on the ballot starts with one or more citizens (“Proponents”) drafting an initiative. Proponents must obtain signatures of 25 or more electors before presenting their initiative to Legislative Counsel. If Counsel determines there is a good chance the initiative would be approved by voters, Legislative Counsel draft a proposed law.
Secretary of State. The measure is then submitted to the Secretary of State where its form and language are reviewed and a statement of fiscal impact is provided by the Legislative Analyst’s Office. The initiative is then submitted to the Attorney General along with a fee. The Attorney General assigns a title and a summary to the proposition and opens a 30-day public comment period. At the conclusion of the comment period, Proponents have an opportunity to amend the initiative, provided it remains true to its original theme or purpose. The initiative is then returned to the Secretary of State.
Collecting Signatures. At that point, Proponents can begin collecting signatures of registered voters. They must collect a percentage based on the number of people who voted in the last gubernatorial election—8% for a constitutional amendment or 5% for a statute. The signed petition is then submitted to the Secretary of State for validation of signatures. If the initiative receives the required number of signatures, it is placed on the ballot for the November election.
Proposition 13. The most notable proposition in California history was the 1978 Proposition 13, the “People’s Initiative to Limit Property Taxation.” The voter-approved constitutional amendment placed a limit on property taxation to stop the state’s voracious taxing policies from pushing tens of thousands of seniors out of their homes. Prop 13 capped property taxes at 1% of the value of a property at the time of purchase and restricted annual increases to an inflation factor not to exceed 2% per year.
Proliferation of Propositions. The success of the citizen’s revolt in 1978 led to a significant increase in propositions. In the 30 years following Proposition 13, 77 ballot initiatives were voted into law, almost double the number in the preceding 60 years. What started as a process for reforming corruption in government turned into a free-for-all for bypassing the legislature. This has led to problems.
Problems. The financial expenditure by the state to support the proposition process has been escalating. The Los Angeles Times estimates that more than $452 million will be spent on ballot measures in 2016 alone. The cost is not the only problem. The propositions are often poorly written and have become sufficiently complex that the average citizen cannot read and understand them anymore. Instead, they are forced to rely on advertising that can be incredibly deceptive by those for and against the initiative. As a result, truly bad laws can be approved with long-term negative consequences for the state. This election cycle is no different.
Community Associations. Fortunately, community associations have not been burdened with the initiative process. If homeowners had the right to submit and vote an anything they chose, the deliberative process of boards who owe a fiduciary duty to act in the best interests of the association would be lost. Members who have no duty to anyone but themselves could pass amendments without considering the impact on minority positions. This is known as the tyranny of the majority. Because member-generated amendments would not go through a legal vetting and proper deliberation, they could have a long-term negative impact on the association as a whole.
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