Propositions, Initiatives and Referendums: What's the Difference?

Photo: Flickr user DoNotLick

Every time an election nears, we start hearing about Prop This, That and The Other. We hear terms like "initiative constitutional amendment" and "referendum," and we know that we're being asked to help make a decision normally left up to legislators.

So why put something to a popular vote when we pay our representatives to make the tough decisions on our behalf?

Corruption. That's the short answer, anyway. The idea got its start more than 100 years ago during the height of the progressive movement. People were complaining about corruption in the legislature (when haven't they?), and so a new system was devised that would allow the people to bypass the legislature and make laws on their own initiative. Hence, it is called the initiative process.

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Whether or not the initiative process has reduced the overall amount of political corruption is open for debate, but California is not unique in allowing some form of direct democracy. Twenty-six states allow popular ballot measures, according to the Initiative and Referendum Institute at the University of Southern California.

Californians are, however, uniquely prolific in their use of the system. More popular initiatives have qualified for the ballot in this state than any other except Oregon. Between 1904 and 2010, Californians voted on some 340 measures. Oregonians voted on more than 350, but the next closest behind California would be Colorado, with only 215 measures, according to the IRI.

For all that extra civic engagement, one might think Californians have become experts in the initiative process, and perhaps they have. But one of the complaints about the system is that it is too confusing. What exactly is the difference between an initiative and a referendum? How does the process work and who has the final say on these laws, anyway?

We may not be able to take away the pain of studying the sometimes arcane and often dense laws that find their way into voter guides, but we can, at least, answer some basic questions about the process as it currently stands.

What is a proposition?
"Proposition" is a blanket term for any ballot measure to be voted on by the people. It can be an initiative or a referendum.

What is an initiative?
An initiative is a brand new law or constitutional amendment proposed and voted on by the people. It is a law initiated by the people.

In California, we use the direct initiative process, which means a petition with the required number of signatures automatically qualifies for the ballot. Some states allow only indirect initiatives, in which a measure that receives the necessary signatures moves next to the legislature for further action.

What is a referendum?
A referendum is a vote by the people to approve or reject an existing law.

A referendum can be triggered in one of two ways. First, the legislature can send a proposed bill directly to the people instead of deciding on it themselves. In other words, a referendum occurs when a law is referred to the people. In this case, it is called a legislative referendum. In California and most other states, constitutional amendments automatically trigger a referendum, since they require the direct approval of the people to pass.

Alternately, the people can attempt to repeal a law even after it has been passed by the Legislature. In this case, it is called a popular referendum. Only 24 states allow this type of referendum. California is one of them.

How does the process work?
Initiatives and popular referendums make it onto the ballot by petition. That means a certain number of individual voters have to back the idea by signing their name to it first. Here's how it works:

Step One - Write the measure
The Office of Legislative Counsel, which drafts bill proposals for the California Senate and Assembly, also assists proponents in drafting language for their own ballot measures. Alternately, a person can seek private legal counsel or simply write it him- or herself.

Step Two - Submit to the Attorney General
It's the job of the Attorney General's office to create the proposed law's official title and summary, which will appear on petitions and, if qualified, on the ballot.

Step Three - Gather signatures
The proponents of the new law must format the petitions a certain way by law. Next, they can employ volunteers or paid circulators to actually hit the streets, talk to people and convince voters to sign.

The rules governing this stage differ slightly depending on the proposition, and here's where it gets a little arcane (but not too bad). For initiative statutes, proponents have 150 days to gather valid signatures that add up to 5 percent of the voter turnout in the last gubernatorial election. Currently, that number is 504,760.

For referendums, proponents must gather the same number of signatures, but they only have 90 days following the passage of the law they wish to challenge or change.

For initiative constitutional amendments, proponents again have 150 days to campaign, but the required number of signatures increases to 8 percent of the turnout, or currently 807,615.

Step Four - Submit and verify the signatures
This step is really more the responsibility of county elections officials. Once a proponent has turned in the signatures, local officials use a formula to determine whether to confirm the signatures are valid. If more than 110 percent of the required signatures have been gathered, no further action is required. Any less than that, however, and officials must do a random sampling to determine whether statistically there are enough valid, authentic signatures to qualify the measure.

Step Five - Vote
Unless it is written otherwise, a proposition becomes law the day after an election if it receives a straight majority of votes. The legislature can propose an amendment or repeal, but it must still pass a popular vote. Under the current system, only the people have the power to undo what they have done.

Have any important laws arisen from the initiative process?
Definitely. One undeniable (and controversial) fixture of California's political climate is the limitation on increasing property tax rates introduced by Proposition 13, which passed in 1978.

Prop 8, though its fate is still tied up in courts, has rather profound and deeply personal implications for members of the LGBT community. That initiative amended the state constitution to ban gay marriage.

Then there are California's legislative term limits and the new top-two primary system, which will come into play for the first time this June. Both of these laws came from popular initiatives.

Ultimately, though, the answer will depend on who is asking the question.

"The question depends partly on what's important to you. These [ballot measures] are hugely important to the ones involved," says Shaun Bowler, a professor and expert on initiatives at UC Riverside.

How often do we use the system, and how often do ballot measures succeed?
According to the Secretary of State's office, 1,657 initiatives and referendums circulated between 1912 and 2010. Only 348 qualified for the ballot. Of those, 116 were approved. Accounting for a handful that were blocked by court order, voters historically have approved popular ballot measures only about a third of the time.

Initiatives Circulated, 1912-2010
Mouse over the chart for exact values. Source: California Secretary of State

The years 1914 and 1987 tied for the greatest number of state propositions on a single ballot with 12 each (counties can have their own initiative process). 1934 and 1989 came in a close second with 11 each.

Initiative Approval Rate, 1912-2010
Mouse over the chart for exact values. Source: California Secretary of State

How much does it cost to run a campaign to get the required signatures?
Giving everyone the power to legislate does not mean it is suddenly cheaper or even easier to change state law.

Getting enough signatures to qualify for the ballot in a state as large as California can cost $1 million to $2 million, says John Matsusaka, president of the IRI at the University of Southern California.

"And that's just to get you on the ballot. After that, there's the campaign, and it's unlimited. We've seen over $100 million [spent] on some of these things. The sky's the limit there," says Matsusaka.

There's no magic number, either, he says. California has plenty of examples of one side vastly outspending the other and still losing.

"It's got to make sense to the voters," Matsusaka says.

Whose idea was this anyway?
Governor Hiram Johnson is generally credited with bringing the initiative process to the state of California. Johnson had promised voters when elected that he would create a tool to give citizens more direct control over the democratic process.

That doesn't mean voters had never seen a ballot proposition. Constitutional amendments have had to go through the people since the state's inception. But until 1911, voters had never had the power to propose laws for themselves.

On Oct. 10, 1911, Senate Constitutional Amendment 22 was placed on the ballot, and voters approved it by the remarkably wide margin of 168,744 to 52,093.

About the Author

Web Editor for SoCal Connected, KCET's award-winning television newsmagazine. He has worked in just about every medium, with stories appearing on TV, radio, Web, and print. He is also the editor of the Online Journalism Review at ...
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