California’s ballot initiative system was created a century ago as a new form of “citizen democracy” – a way for ordinary Californians to make their own laws when legislators, too often under the thumb of special interests, failed to follow the will of the people. The Greenlining Institute seeks to return our ballot initiative system to that ideal of citizen democracy and ensure that it meets the needs of our increasingly diverse state. Our goals are to:
- Improve voter access and information
- Empower voters to participate
- Reduce the negative influence of big money
- Improve transparency and accountability
- Strengthen regulation and oversight to reduce voter manipulation and attacks on civil rights
In order to develop our reform agenda, we held town hall meetings around California and conducted an extensive, two-phase survey of voters. Based on this feedback and input from other community organizations around the state, we are moving forward on several fronts:
Over six million voting-age Californians are “limited-English proficient” (defined by the U.S. Census as any person who answers that they speak English “less than very well”). In our town halls, some of these voters raised a significant concern: Our initiative petitions are available only in English, leaving millions of citizens out of the process of deciding what gets on our ballot – and potentially vulnerable to exploitation by dishonest signature gatherers, who can mislead voters who are still learning English into signing something they don’t fully understand.
To address this concern, in 2012 Greenlining sponsored Senate Bill 1233, which would have required the state to translate all initiative titles and summaries for circulation into widely-spoken languages covered by the federal Voting Rights Act. While both houses of the state legislature passed the bill, it was vetoed by Gov. Brown. We will continue to pursue this issue, and are now exploring the possibility of working with cities or counties interested in expanding access to local ballot initiatives for limited-English residents.
The current process of obtaining signatures, in which hundreds of thousands of signatures must be gathered by hand in a relatively short time period, is expensive, cumbersome, and gives an advantage to wealthy special interests, who can afford to hire an army of paid signature gatherers. We believe that reforms could help level the playing field for grassroots groups while improving citizen access to the process. Possible reforms that deserve consideration include electronic signature gathering and a centralized hub where citizens can go to learn about what petitions are in circulation and can sign onto issues they believe should move forward. An online signature-gathering platform would have the additional benefits of being able to integrate language access and several options for persons with disabilities.