California voters just made it harder to get an initiative on the ballot

Corporations and special interest groups hoping to put initiatives and referenda on California’s ballot in the next few years will face a much steeper climb just to qualify their measures thanks to a huge surge in voter turnout this year.

More than 12.7 million Californians cast ballots in this year’s midterm elections, an increase of more than 5 million over the number who cast votes in the 2014 midterm elections.

Like most states where direct democracy is an option, California pegs the number of signatures required to qualify an initiative or referendum for the ballot to the number of voters who vote in a governor’s race. 

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In California’s case, initiative supporters must collect a number of signatures equal to or greater than 8 percent of the number of ballots cast in the preceding gubernatorial election.

California’s 2014 gubernatorial contest, in which Gov. Jerry Brown (D) skated to re-election over former Bush administration official Neel Kashkari (R), was a dismally low-turnout affair in which only 30 percent of registered voters bothered to cast a ballot.

That meant supporters of any particular ballot measure needed just 365,880 valid signatures to qualify an initiative or referendum for the ballot in the two elections that followed. 

The bar was so low that California’s ballots were inundated by initiatives: In 2016, voters weighed in on 15 citizen-sponsored ballot measures. In 2018, they decided eight more citizen-sponsored measures.

The surge in turnout this year means future ballot measures will require many, many more signatures. To qualify, initiative supporters will need to collect more than 623,000 valid signatures, a 70 percent increase. 

“Generally speaking, 2016 and 2018 were seen as sort of opportunities in California for initiatives because of the low 2014 turnout,” said Josh Altic, who studies ballot measures for the nonpartisan website Ballotpedia. “2020 and 2022 will be seen as the opposite of that.”

The higher signature gathering limits are likely to mean millions more in costs required to get an initiative on the state ballot in the future, said Gale Kaufman, a veteran Democratic strategist in Sacramento whose firm works on ballot measure campaigns. That’s in part because ballot measure campaigns aim to collect far more signatures than necessary to qualify, in order to account for signatures that will inevitably be ruled invalid.

The “rule of thumb is to collect approximately 75 percent over what you need,” Kaufman said. “So, if you are on any kind of tight budget, the new numbers will add close to a million [dollars], if not more, to initiatives.”

Ballot measures are already a lucrative business for political strategists in California, where supporters and opponents spent nearly $370 million on campaigns this year. The two most expensive propositions — one to limit the amount of revenue kidney dialysis companies could generate, and another that would have limited local government’s abilities to impose rent controls — generated more than $100 million each in spending.

A big part of the costs associated with ballot measures are incurred even before the campaign formally begins, when supporters have to gather the hundreds of thousands of signatures necessary to qualify an initiative. Signature-gathering firms, a sub-specialty within the consulting world, can charge as much as $6 or more per valid signature.

“As to the signature gathering companies,” Kaufman said, the higher threshold for qualifying initiatives “is good news.”