Why California Referenda Keep Failing

Next year was supposed to be a big season for referenda on the ballot.

After all, a record number of referendums -- the name for ballot measures that seek to block an act of the legislature -- have been filed this year: eight.

But three have failed to make the ballot, and a fourth -- to reverse legislation to include material about the contributions of gays and lesbians in school curriculums -- is likely to come up short of the necessary signatures.

Why do referenda keep failing?

Because California makes it too hard to qualify referenda.

The problem boils down to two things: too many signatures and too little time. Backers of a referendum have to collect the same number of valid signatures necessary for an initiative -- 504,760 -- but in much less time: 90 days, as opposed to the 150 days permitted for an initiative.

To collect that many signatures that fast requires so much money that only the wealthiest people and interests have any chance of reaching the standard.

Amazon, before it abandoned its referendum effort as a part of a deal, was on its way to spending $5 million to qualify a referendum of legislation to tax purchases. 

Why does this matter? Because referendums are the healthiest form of direct democracy.

California's initiative process, which allows people and groups to circumvent the legislative process entirely, is famously inflexible. Interest groups and voters have used it for carve-outs that make the budget more difficult to balance and the state more difficult to govern.

But the referendum offers the people the ability to pass judgment -- and communicate directly -- with lawmakers.

It's a more direct and less damaging process, that's more likely to produce engagement with the government, and deliberation over what the legislature is doing.

One possible reform would be to reduce signature standards and provide more time for referenda -- while putting a few restrictions on the initiative process.

A direct democracy that had more referendums and fewer initiatives almost certainly would be healthier. 

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