Money in politics: Finance, regulation and disclosure in California's ballot initiative process
Ballot initiatives are a mainstay of the California election process. More than a hundred citizen initiatives have already been proposed and filed with California’s secretary of state this year. On May 12, AirTalk’s Larry Mantle hosted a panel discussion about the ballot initiative process, how financing influences it and potential reforms to the process.
The initiative process currently faces some challenges. John Matsusaka, professor at USC and the Charles F. Sexton chair in American enterprise, explained the initiative process was created to provide a check for when legislators did not follow the public interest. Jessica Levinson, professor at Loyola Law School, expressed concern over the influence of special interests on those initiatives and the unfeasibility of some of the measures, adding: “A lot of those initiatives end up being litigated; in a good percentage of them, some parts end up getting thrown out. They’re also very expensive to implement.”
Expenses can serve as a barrier to entry as well as implementation. Richard Hasen, chancellor's professor of law and political science at UC Irvine, stated: “Costs are going up. This election season, we hear stories about initiative signature gatherers being able to charge $5.50 per signature. Lots of people with good ideas are priced out of the process. Even if you have a good idea, if you can’t raise a couple million dollars, you don’t get that chance.” Hasen explained this is in addition to the costs of advertising and mailers, which effectively price out many people from the initiative process and limit participation to those who can fund and afford it.
The panel also discussed disclosure of who is behind the financing of these ballot initiatives and their campaigns. Peter Scheer, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition, declared, “The presumption has to be in favor of disclosure. In the political process, we reasonably expect people, in expressing their first amendment rights (through funding) to stand up for those points, and not do so secretly. If they’re truly committed to those positions, they should be transparent about it.” Scheer went on to explain that California has taken a big step as compared to the federal government in regulating meaningful disclosure of the funding, including of so-called “dark money.”
When it comes to understanding the initiatives, panelists said many voters were not always clearly informed. John Eastman, professor of law and community service at Chapman University, warned: “The problem is that you think you’re voting for something, and buried in the fine print is the opposite.” Levinson explained, “I think they’re intentionally designed to pass. Sometimes that means they’ll be confusing. The attorney general has great power when you’re deciding the title and summary. Other than the people in the room, most people encounter the ballot measure for the first time in the ballot box or in the voter guide.”
The group discussed ideas for reforms to the initiative process. Pete Peterson, interim dean of the School of Public Policy and executive director of the Davenport Institute at Pepperdine University, shared Oregon’s citizens-initiative review board system, wherein a jury of representative Oregonians hear arguments from both sides of a ballot measure issue, and write their own summary to go into the voting information packet.
To close out the conversation, each of the panelists shared one idea to reform the ballot initiative process:
- Peter Scheer: Do whatever is necessary to assure maximum disclosure of donors.
- Pete Peterson: Reduce the donation limits on the organizations that lobby and raise campaign funds for ballot measure.
- John Matsusaka: Make it easier for measures passed to be amended.
- Jessica Levinson: It should be more difficult to pass constitutional amendments, and we should consider supermajority sunset provisions.
- Richard Hasen: Have a nonpartisan election administration, and significantly increase the signatures required for measures, but allow those signatures to be collected over the internet.
- John Eastman: Extend the period of time to do a referendum and increase the threshold for donations.
Photo credit: Quincy Surasmith/SCPR