By: Aaron Colby
This year, like other states, California worked to complete another midterm election season. Also like other states, this means that candidates participated in major fundraising and spending efforts, to increase their chances of a favorable election result. However, unlike many other states, a great deal of these campaign contributions are going not to a particular candidate, but rather to a specific cause: support of or opposition to a particular ballot initiative. California law requires supporters and opponents of ballot initiatives to form a committee, to which donations are made, and to disclose the amount of the donations they receive.
In September, California Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill that would affect a number of changes to California’s initiative process. The bill is purported to further the goal of adding transparency and public participation to the initiative process. The bill first increases the initiative signature-gathering period from 150 to 180 days. The California Secretary of State’s office is now required to regularly update the pre-existing California Campaign Finance database with the top 10 donors to an initiative committee. Perhaps most importantly, the bill creates a public review and comment period at the beginning of the initiative process, which lasts for 30 days. Much like an administrative agency review-and-comment period, the general public is encouraged to browse the text of the proposed initiative, which will be available on the California Secretary of State’s website, and to make comments and suggestions. The initiative’s supporters will then have an opportunity to make amendments to the bill based both on comments from private citizens and suggestions from the state legislature, and re-submit it to be voted on in the election.
However, state regulators have already encountered trouble implementing these changes. The organization responsible for investigating and regulating contributions to both candidates and initiatives is the California Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC). Ironically enough, the FPPC was itself created as part of the greater Political Reform Initiative of 1976, and is the state’s equivalent of the Federal Election Commission. The FPPC and the California Secretary of State’s office have been struggling to implement the changes enacted by the recent law, including the addition of the top 10 donor feature on the Campaign Finance Database. The Sacramento Bee reports that a major liberal donor, who had contributed $400,000 to an initiative committee in the 2012 general election, has yet to be cited by the FPPC’s new database. Part of the reason for the lag in creation of this list is that the FPPC “relies on campaign committees to report their top donors directly to the watchdog agency.” Although an FPPC spokesman stated that this was only an “oversight” and the “only anomaly” thus far, this type of problem is endemic to self-reporting. This election season, a number of violations of election law have already occurred. Many of these violations have arisen from failure to properly self-report campaign finance and expenditures. Recently, four Republican committees, as well as a CalPERS Board Member were found to be in violation of self-reporting requirements of campaign funding.
Critics and supporters of the bill are unable to agree on exactly what effect this will have on the initiatives process. Many critics argue that this is a cynical measure designed to reduce the influence of the initiatives process, and that it either stifles a positive process or does not go far enough in limiting the “dysfunctional direct democracy that nobody really likes.” In an opinion column in the Sacramento Bee, Ben Boychuck posits that this reform is merely another way to weed out poorly-worded or special interest-serving ballot initiatives. The 180 day signature period allows more time for pre-emptive lawsuits to be filed, but the public comment period was useless. The average citizen, Boychuck argues, often spends little time reading the cursory summaries of the initiatives in the ballot itself and should not be expected to read and prepare commentary for each individual ballot measure; this is the role of the more representative democracy oriented state legislature. Supporters of SB 1253 have been just as vocal. An editorial in the Los Angeles Times praises the comment-and-amendment period specifically, asserting that “[d]ialogues between lawmakers and initiative proponents of the kind taking place this week could very well cease to be pointless exercises and become paths to more enlightened and transparent lawmaking.” The L.A. Times editorial makes the point that the public comment period will allow for discussions between proponents of the initiative and the legislature itself, which hopefully will have the effect of addressing the drafting problems so often endemic to initiatives.
Whatever the eventual impact, it is clear that the state of California will continue its ongoing experiment with direct democracy. SB 1253 has once again highlighted twin, competing desires regarding regulation of the initiative and referendum system: The desire to open the democratic process to as many people as can participate, and the desire to prevent that system from being hijacked to serve ends not in the public interest.
The full text of California’s SB 1253 can be found here.