Assembly Committee Approves Bill Undermining Direct Democracy

Loren KayeLegislation that would diminish voters’ ability to hold elected leaders accountable was approved by the Assembly Elections Committee yesterday.

Introduced by the committee chairman, Assemblymember Isaac Bryan, and supported by labor unions, environmental organizations, and other special interests, AB 421 would severely constrain the ability to place referenda on a statewide ballot, apply stricter referendum rules to certain statewide initiative proposals, require that 10% of signatures be collected by volunteers (labor unions are exempted from this requirement), and even change the century-old question that voters are asked to decide.

Speaking for the California Chamber of Commerce, advocate Kelly Jensen stated that the bill “seeks to gut the more than 100-year-old system of direct democracy here in California. . . These provisions will likely make it impossible for anyone to qualify a referendum or this newly created class of hybrid initiatives.”

The bill would cut in half the amount of time to collect signatures for certain “hybrid” initiatives that would amend recently-adopted state laws, and subject those initiatives to the crippling new paperwork requirements that would also apply to referenda.

AB 421 would set arbitrary bureaucratic deadlines for updating petition paperwork – designed to make it impossible to qualify a referendum or certain initiatives, including strict formatting requirements, new burdens on the signers, and frequent changes and reprints of petitions, depending on changing financial circumstances.

Jensen testified that since the advent of direct democracy more than a century ago in California, only 33 referenda have appeared on statewide ballots – and voters approved the statutes in question on 16 occasions and rejected them on 17. This is hardly evidence that the referendum is confusing or abused.

A powerful special interest recently described the importance of California’s direct democracy:

“When elected officials don’t take action on the issues that matter to us, ballot initiatives are a great way for the people to make change. We believe in the power of initiatives to hold powerful interests accountable.”

Those are the words of SEIU-UHW on their own website.

The referendum is a necessary tool that should not be tinkered with. Referendums serve as a check on legislative overreach. Changing the rules and making the process more complex and expensive deprives voters of their fundamental voting right of oversight and robs them of the ability to hold politicians and elected leaders accountable.

Loren Kaye
Loren Kaye was appointed president of the California Foundation for Commerce and Education in January 2006. He has devoted his career to developing, analyzing and implementing public policy issues in California, with a special emphasis on improving the state's business and economic climate. He also was a gubernatorial appointee to the state's Little Hoover Commission, charged with evaluating the efficiency and effectiveness of state agencies and programs. Kaye served in senior policy positions for Governors Pete Wilson and George Deukmejian, including Cabinet Secretary to the Governor and Undersecretary of the California Trade and Commerce Agency. See full bio.