California’s 2016 ballot: ‘Sex. Drugs. Guns. Death.’

California’s 2016 ballot: ‘Sex. Drugs. Guns. Death.’
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California voters will be asked to decide a whopping 17 ballot initiatives this November as corporations and interest groups turn to the direct democratic process to advance their causes.

Voters will face questions relating to everything from legalizing marijuana for recreational use, banning the death penalty, taxes on cigarettes — and whether performers in pornographic films must wear condoms.

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“Sex. Drugs. Guns. Death,” said Thad Kousser, a political scientist at the University of California, San Diego, summing up this year’s ballot.

“The saving grace of this really, really long ballot is it’s going to make great reading,” he added. “We have a lot of hot-button issues. Our ballot’s going to be long, but it’s going to be a page-turner.”

Several of the measure will be among the most expensive political fights of the year, setting aside the battle for the White House.

Two measures relating to healthcare have been especially costly: Supporters of Proposition 52, which relates to hospital fees, have raised $59 million so far; opponents have contributed more than $14 million.

Backers of Proposition 61, which would limit prescription drug prices, have poured $9.4 million into their campaign. In response, pharmaceutical companies have spent nearly $70 million to quash the measure.

Proposition 56, which would raise taxes on cigarettes by $2 per pack, has attracted almost $17 million in contributions — while tobacco companies have donated more than $35 million to defeat it.

Supporters of a proposition to extend a temporary hike on personal income taxes for the wealthy have raised almost $42 million. The plastics industry has contributed $6 million in an effort to overturn a statewide ban on single-use plastic bags. And supporters of legalizing marijuana for recreational purposes have pulled in more than $11 million so far.

“Ballot measure campaigns costing in the tens of millions of dollars are nothing new in California,” said Brian Brokaw, a Democratic strategist based in Sacramento who has worked on ballot measures for years. “Any campaign that involves the tobacco, oil or pharmaceutical industry, or any other deep-pocketed interest group — and in California, they’re particularly frequent targets — campaigns costing many tens of millions of dollars are the norm.”

One prominent strategist running an initiative campaign this year said six to eight ballot initiative campaigns could cost more than $40 million apiece.

“The stakes of every policy decision in California make investing in a ballot measure a bargain. Couple that with the fact that there are no campaign contribution limits,” Kousser said.

Ballot measures have been a significant part of California politics since reformers led by Gov. Hiram Johnson amended the state constitution to allow direct democracy in 1911. In the century since, voters have weighed in on more than 360 measures, ranging from abolishing poll taxes and funding the University of California system to deep tax cuts — and occasional tax increases.

While the initiative process began as an effort to dull the political power of timber and railroad companies, corporations have long used initiatives to protect their own interests. In 1964, movie theater owners backed an initiative to ban cable television, which threatened their businesses; courts later ruled the initiative unconstitutional.

Politicians have also used ballot measures as vehicles for their own ambitions. Gov. Pete Wilson faced low approval ratings in 1994, though he won reelection after tying his campaign to Proposition 187, which denied public services to undocumented immigrants. Arnold Schwarzenegger campaigned for Proposition 49, which increased funding for after-school programs, in 2002, before mounting his own bid for governor the following year.

In 2016, two high-profile backers of key initiatives may hope their support vaults them to higher office: Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) is leading the campaign for Proposition 63, which would ban possession of high-capacity magazines and require a background check for anyone purchasing ammunition. Tom Steyer, the hedge fund manager and major Democratic donor, is a sponsor of the initiative to raise cigarette taxes. 

Newsom has already said he will run for governor in 2018, and Steyer is said to be considering a run.

There are so many initiatives on the ballot this year, observers say, because it is easier to qualify an initiative than it has been in years. To earn a spot on the ballot, initiative campaigns must gather signatures of registered voters equal to eight percent of the number of votes cast in the previous gubernatorial election. After low turnout in 2014, the number of signatures necessary to qualify fell more than 27 percent, from 504,000 valid signatures to 365,000.

Sometimes, the myriad initiatives can be confusing to voters. Two propositions on this year’s ballot — Proposition 62 and Proposition 66 — would make fundamental changes to the state’s death penalty. Proposition 62 would end the death penalty altogether. Proposition 66 would speed up the appeals process, but leave the death penalty in place. Should both measures pass, the future of the state’s capital punishment regime is likely to end up in court.

Voters may also wonder why they are being asked to decide whether pornographic actors must use condoms. Proposition 60 follows a 2012 Los Angeles measure making the requirement law; more than half a million Californians signed petitions to put the measure on November’s ballot.

As spending on ballot measures has risen, initiatives have become a political cottage industry unto themselves. Qualifying alone can cost millions of dollars — paid signature gatherers charge between $2 and $6 for each valid signature they submit, Brokaw said. Some strategists have opted against high-profile jobs running gubernatorial campaigns in order to make more money running a ballot measure race.

And as Democrats consolidate their holds on Sacramento and statewide offices, ballot measures are one of the few chances outsiders have to make their marks.

“The initiative process is the only place where there’s still political competition in California,” Kousser said. “That sends more money into the ballot measures.”