California is a state in the US that utilises a system of initiatives.

In political terms an initiative refers to the ability of citizens to force a vote on an issue that has not been put before them by their elected representatives. This may allow citizens to bypass their elected chambers in order to pass legislation themselves. In the UK there is no mechanism for initiatives of this type. The E-Petitions system set-up in 2011 by the Coalition Government allows petitioners to force a government response to a petition at 10,000 signatures and to request a debate at 100,000 signatures, however, there is no mechanism to enforce binding changes. Yet, in other parts of the world give citizens much more powers in this area, with notable examples being states in the USA and Switzerland. So, looking through the lens of California, how effective is a system that allows citizens to take some control of the legislative agenda?

Where in the world are initiatives available as a political option to citizens?

Switzerland is a system that uses lots of initiatives.

A number of countries use initiatives. Some examples are:

Switzerland – Switzerland gives significant powers to its citizens to propose or amend laws. This is done at both a federal, regional and local level.

United States – Whilst they are not used at a Federal level, a number of states use initiatives. These include California, Oregon and Washington.

Italy – Italy allows initiatives at both national and regional levels.

New Zealand – Since 1993 citizens have been able to initiate referendums on particular issue at a national level if 10% of the electorate sign a petition asking for it.

How do initiatives work in California?

California is the most prominent state to utilise initiatives in America. The number of initiative can be numerous. For example, in November 2020 there were 12 initiatives that were being voted on. In California citizens can directly alter the constitution or pass or repeal state laws. If a petition achieves enough signatures it will be put to a referendum of the whole electorate. The petition size needs to be 5% to put a proposal to pass or repeal a law, and 8% to alter the constitution. This means that almost a million signatures are needed for a proposal to be made to alter the state constitution.

In order to state a petition and gather signatures a proposers needs to submit the proposed law or constitutional amendment to the state Attorney-General. A number of official reports are then prepared. When the petition goes live there are 180 days for the required number of signatures to be reached. If this happens, it will be put to a state-wide ballot and if voters vote in the affirmative, this has the same effect as if the law (or constitutional amendment) had been passed through the normal channels.

What are some prominent examples of initiatives in California?

In pre-emption of the Supreme Court decision in Dobbs, citizens in California enforced the right to abortion and contraceptives as part of the of State Constitution.

Proposition 1 (2022) – This was a proposition to amend the state constitution. It would make the right to abortion and contraceptives a constitutional right. This motion was proposed in reaction to the fact that the Supreme Court indicated that it would overturn Roe v Wade, leaving it down to individual states to create their own laws on abortion. The amendment passed with 66.8% of voters voting for it.

Proposition 64 (2016) – This proposition aimed to legalise marijuana for adults over the aged of 21. It called for taxation to be imposed on its sale and production. The proposition passed with 57% of voters in favour and it saw a significant turnout of 75%.

Proposition 34 (2012) – This proposition sought to repeal a previous proposition. In 1972 voters in California had voted in Proposition 17 to reintroduce the death penalty in California. This proposition sought to remove the death penalty, instead replacing it in all cases with life without parole. The vote on the proposition was very close, but it was just edged by the No Campaign, meaning that the Death Penalty is still on statute books in California.

Proposition 8 (2008) – This proposition sought to introduce a constitutional amendment that would ban same-sex marriage. The proposition passed with 52% of voters choosing to support it. However, in 2010 the ban was found unconstitutional by federal courts.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of this system?

There are a number of potential advantages and disadvantages of a system in which citizens have the power of initiative.

Some advantages include:

It gives more control to citizens – Initiatives ensure that citizens have a direct say on issues and, importantly, can choose the issues that matter to them and their communities. Consequently, this can increase levels of political participation which is an important element of a functioning democracy.

It provides a check on legislators – The power of initiative makes sure they citizens can act where they feel their legislators are not doing so. Voters may have a different priority to legislators and the systems gives them influence between elections taking place. Surveys by the Public Policy institute of California between 2000 and 2013 suggested 72% of voters thought initiatives were a good thing.

They provide and educative function – The process can help to educate the public about political and social issues. The vote on an initiative comes at the end of a long campaign in which voters will have had the chance to learn more about the issue in question.

It can improve policy-making – Initiatives might help to bring about new policies that might not otherwise have been considered by legislators. This can lead to experimental legislation that improves the political process.

Some disadvantages might include:

It oversimplifies complex issues – Many of the issues considered by initiatives are very complex and require detailed understanding. However, to make them fit for a vote they are turned into binary questions which can lead to their nuance being lost.

Voters lack the expertise to make such important decisions – Citizens often lack the expertise to make important political decisions. This is opposed to elected representatives who have experience and training in doing so. This can lead to poor decisions being made and to laws that are not as effective as they could otherwise be.

It gives enormous influence to special interests – The system is swayed towards special interest groups (pressure groups) who can use the initiative to promote their own agendas.

Campaigns can be extremely costly – An initiative campaign is extremely costly as it required the collection of signatures and significant expenditure of advertising. As such, the likelihood of success is swayed towards wealth and powerful groups. Propositions can cost hundreds of millions of dollars, for example, Proposition 87 in 2006 cost $154 million dollars.

Article Summary

Initiatives are a form of direct democracy and allow for citizens to force the passage or repeal of legislation. This can give them more control over the political process and gives them more influence between elections.

Key Terms

Initiatives – A proposed law or constitutional amendment suggested and voted on by voters.

Direct Democracy – A form of democracy where citizens directly decide on issues rather than relying on elected representatives.

Proposition – An initiative that has met the required signatures and now appears on the Ballot Paper to be voted on.

E-Petition – A petition which can be signed electronically.

Specification Links:
Edexcel: Paper 1 – 1.1 (Democracy and Participation)
AQA: Paper 1 – (Democracy and Participation)
WJEC: Paper 2 – 2.2.1 (Participation through elections and voting)

Leave a Reply


%d bloggers like this: