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How Does California’s Ballot Measure Process Work?

lavotingbooth Stephen Velasco/ Flickr CC

In Brief

The ballot measure process is a form of direct democracy whereby voters, rather than legislatures, pass new laws with a popular vote. This process has been in place in California since 1911 and currently has a high profile, if not controversial, role in elections and public policy. This brief summarizes the components, historical significance, and actual steps involved in California’s ballot measure process.

Overview: What is the Ballot Measure Process?

There are two components to the ballot measure process in California – initiatives and referenda.

  • Initiative: citizens or the legislature propose a brand new statute or constitutional amendment on which citizens may vote.
  • Referendum: citizens approve or reject an existing law through popular vote. Every state in the U.S. has some form of approval referenda. Most states require citizens to approve any constitutional amendment the state legislature passes before it can take effect. Alternatively, a popular referendum allows citizens to vote to repeal existing legislation. California and 22 other states allow popular referendums.

Both initiatives and popular referenda require a signature gathering petition before they can be placed on a ballot. This ensures a minimum number of registered voters support the measure.

Background: History of Ballot Initiatives and Referendums

The turn of the 20th century was characterized by widespread corruption in state and local governments nationwide. The general public responded with a period of sweeping reforms during what is known as the Progressive Era. One major reform for combatting legislative corruption was to allow voters to pass or repeal their own laws. In California, voters ratified constitutional amendments establishing the initiative and referendum in 1911.

Some notable California ballot measures have reduced state property taxes (Proposition 13, 1978), lowered term limits for legislators (Proposition 140, 1990), enforced mandatory spending on education (Proposition 98, 1988), and created a new redistricting process (Proposition 20, 2010). Critics of the ballot measure process argue that it places too much of a burden on an already strained legislature, is increasingly being used by special interests, and is generally poorly understood by the average voter. Despite these objections, most Californians still view the ballot measure process favorably.

Step 1: Drafting the Text

When drafting the language for a ballot initiative or referendum, an individual or group can write it independently, seek private legal counsel, or submit their proposal to the Office of Legislative Counsel. The Office of Legislative Counsel requires the signatures of 25 or more registered voters before drafting the proposed law.

Step 2: Submission to the Attorney General and Non-Partisan Fiscal Analysis

The proponents must submit the draft proposal to the Attorney General’s Office where the public can view it online and comment on it. This comment period lasts 30 days, and the proponents have five days following the end of the comment period to amend the proposal.

Within 50 days of submission to the Attorney General, the Legislative Analyst’s Office and Department of Finance conduct a joint analysis on the proposal’s expected impact on state and local revenues, as well as estimated costs. The Attorney General’s Office uses this analysis to write the title and summary for the measure, which will be submitted to the Secretary of State and included on the signature gathering petitions.

Step 3: Signature Gathering

Proponents of the measure must gather a minimum number of signatures from registered voters to qualify for the ballot. Signature gatherers may be volunteers or paid.

If the initiative would alter state law, proponents have 150 days to collect signatures totaling 5% of voter turnout from the most recent gubernatorial election. Referenda require the same number of signatures, but referenda signatures must be collected within 90 days following the passage of the targeted law.

If the initiative would alter the state constitution, the 150 day limit is the same, but proponents must collect signatures totaling 8% of voter turnout.

Step 4: Voting and Law

If it receives a majority of the popular vote, a ballot measure becomes law the day after the election. The legislature may propose to amend or repeal the law, but must do so through a popular vote. Occasionally, the public approves ballot measures that state or federal courts later declare unconstitutional.


  • The ballot measure process in California was created so citizens could work around corrupt legislatures.
  • Ballot initiatives allow voters to create new statutory laws or constitutional amendments.
  • Popular referendums allow voters to repeal or change existing laws.
  • There are mixed opinions about the current ballot measure process, but it still plays a major role in California politics.
  • The steps involved in passing a ballot measure are time-consuming and expensive. This minimizes the chance of frivolous measures qualifying for the ballot.

Works Cited[+ Expand]

Baldassare, Mark, et al. Public Policy Institute of California. “California’s Initiative Process: 100 Years Old.” September 2011.


California Legislative Analyst’s Office. “Ballot Initiatives and Propositions.”


California Secretary of State. “2015 Statewide Initiative Guide.” December 2014.


Fishkin, James. The New York Times. “How to Fix California’s Democracy Crisis.” October 10, 2011.


The Initiative and Referendum Institute at the University of Southern California. “State-by-State List of Initiative and Referendum Provisions.”


Polyakov, Mike, Counts P., and Yin, K. California Common Sense. “California’s Initiative System: The Voice of the People Co-Opted.” November 6, 2013.

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