Reform via the Ballot Box

Where does this Route Take California?

One way in which California’s constitution could be changed is through a series of “initiative constitutional amendments.” Like other ballot propositions, these would be placed on the ballot by organized groups of citizens who gather 694,354 valid signatures, and would then need to be approved by a majority of voters in a statewide election. Initiative by initiative, they could move California toward comprehensive reform.

Current Opportunities

In the November 2, 2010 General Election, California voters will consider nine initiatives, many of which propose governance reforms:

  • Prop.20 would move the job of drawing congressional district maps, done every 10 years, from the Legislature to the recently established Citizens Redistricting Commission process.
  • Prop.22 would reduce state control over how certain transportation or local government funds can be used-and also would prevent the state from borrowing from funds set aside for transportation, local government, or redevelopment agencies.
  • Prop.25 would lower the vote needed to pass the budget from the current two-thirds to a majority (50 percent plus one). State lawmakers would permanently lose salary plus living and travel expenses for every day the budget is late. Prop.25 does not change the two-thirds vote requirement to raise taxes.
  • Prop.26 would change the legislative vote requirement to pass fees from the current majority to the supermajority (two-thirds).
  • Prop.27 would eliminate the new Citizens Redistricting Commission and give authority for drawing state districts back to the Legislature. Some of the guidelines introduced by Prop.11 in 2008 would also be eliminated. For example, lawmakers would not be prohibited from drawing district lines that favor a candidate or political party.

Important Note
Prop.20 and Prop.27 have conflicting goals. Prop.20 wants to have the new Citizens Redistricting Commission do all the redistricting. Prop.27 wants to eliminate the commission and have the Legislature do all the redistricting. If voters approve both propositions, only the one with more YES votes will go into effect.

The following propositions are not direct reforms, but may have implications for California's governance:

  • Prop.19 would allow local governments to generate revenue from the legalization of marijuana. While not a governance reform per se, the measure relates to the overall issue of sources of revenue.
  • Prop.21 would create a vehicle fee to establish a dedicated fund for state parks. This raises the broader issue of "ballot box budgeting."
  • Prop.23 would suspend California's global warming law (AB 32) until unemployment reached low levels.
  • Prop.24 would roll back corporate tax credits.

Next Statewide Election

In February 2012 (or the next statewide election if one is called sooner) voters will decide on a proposition that would amend legislative term limits by shortening them from 14 to 12 years overall, but let legislators serve all their time in one house.

  • For more information about this measure click here.
  • Click here to learn more about the how term limits have affected California's legislature.

How Has this Route Been used in the Past?

Much of California's current constitution has been written by initiative. Since Progressive Gov.Hiram Johnson and the state legislature instituted the initiative process in 1911, Californians have approved more than 38 initiative constitutional amendments. many of these- such as Prop.13 with its tax cuts, Prop.98 with its school spending requirements, and Prop.140 with its term limits- have profoundly changed the structure and function of California's government. Initiative constitutional amendments only need to pass with 50% plus one vote, and some have passed with razor thin margins and led to major shifts. they can only be repealed through another vote of the people.

What are the Pros and Cons of this Route?


  • Initiative process allows voters to make immediate change, looking at reform ideas one-by-one and altering government in an incremental fashion.
  • Initiatives can bring reform without waiting for a constitutional convention or revision commission to meet, going into effect the day after they pass.
  • Voters can decide separately on each one, instead of having to support or oppose a large package of changes across many areas of the constitution. When we put one change into effect through the initiative process, we can look at its consequences – anticipated and unintended – before voting on what else to do.


  • A single initiative cannot bring comprehensive change to the constitution. Initiative constitutional amendments are governed by the “single subject rule,” which requires that every part of an initiative should be “functionally related in furtherance of a common underlying purpose.” You can read more on how this rule has been applied here and here.
  • Courts have ruled that initiatives can only amend, and not fundamentally “revise,” the constitution. A revision – which has been defined as a “changes in the nature of our basic governmental plan” (Amador Valley Joint Union High School District v. State Board of Equalization 1978) or a “far-reaching change in our governmental framework” (Raven v. Deukmejian 1990) – can only be accomplished by calling a constitutional convention or through a measure placed on the ballot by the legislature. An initiative that goes too far might be thrown out by the court.
  • Any group with the resources to fund a professional signature gathering campaign has the ability to dictate the terms of a ballot measure, thereby straying from its origins as the voice of the people.

What Can I do to Choose This Route?

In the coming months, you will surely have the opportunity to sign a ballot petition and to vote on a variety of reform initiative constitutional amendments. You can learn more about them at the Institute for Governmental Studies and the California Secretary of State.