Low Turnout = Low Threshold For Ballot Initiatives in California

Really low turnout in the midterms obviously had an effect on the outcome. But in California, the record low turnout has an interesting byproduct for better or for worse, as KQED’s John Myers explained last week (h/t David Nir of Daily Kos Elections):

Article II of the California Constitution says that the number of valid voter signatures to qualify an initiative is based on the total votes cast in the most recent race for governor. For initiatives that seek to amend the state constitution, the signatures must equal at least 8 percent of the gubernatorial vote; for those that would create new statutes (state law), it’s 5 percent of the gubernatorial vote.

For the 2012 and 2014 elections, that threshold was set in the 2010 contest between Gov. Jerry Brown and GOP challenger Meg Whitman. For 2016 and 2018, the threshold will be set by what happened on Nov. 4.

And as we’re now seeing, that total vote was low. Historically low.

As of now, state elections officials have reported that just shy of 6.5 million votes were cast in the duel between Brown and Republican Neel Kashkari.

That means that backers of any potential 2016 or 2018 ballot measures to write state law could qualify their initiative for the ballot with as few as 325,000 valid signatures. Compare that with the existing threshold for a statutory initiative, which is 504,760….

[F]or a coming election cycle where everyone already expects a torrent of ballot initiatives, from legal pot to tax hikes and beyond, these super-low thresholds could make it a lot easier to get an issue in front of voters.

There’s also a recently enacted provision in state law that requires legislative hearings on any proposed initiative that has collected 25% of the petition signatures needed for ballot certification (the idea being to give the legislature an opportunity to act on whatever’s bugging the initiative supporters).

At current rates, that means that anyone who can get about 82,000 signatures will force the Legislature to engage on the issue.

I’m beginning to understand why Jerry Brown held back many millions of dollars in surplus campaign contributions for use in future ballot initiative fights instead of helping out fellow Democrats this year.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.