In summary

Big money has exploited California’s referendum process to their advantage and now use it to advance their causes.

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By Bob Hertzberg, Special to CalMatters

Sen. Bob Hertzberg, a Democrat from Van Nuys, represents the 18th Senate District and is the Senate Majority Leader,

More than a century ago, California adopted a reform movement in response to major corruption in California’s government. The railroads owned political parties, controlled the state Legislature and blackmailed cities in exchange for a rail connection. 

Editorial cartoons and novels depicted the railroads as an octopus with its greedy tentacles clutching statehouses, the economy, farmers and cities. To wrestle power away from the octopus, then-Gov. Hiram Johnson proposed the direct democracy process in his first inaugural address. 

For the first time, Californians could directly propose and pass laws, overturn laws via referendum and recall elected officials.

Johnson envisioned voters using direct democracy to arm themselves against self-serving corporations and reduce corruption in government. It was supposed to be a system informed by the power of the electorate. But what was intended to be a tool of resistance against the railroads turned into a train wreck. 

It’s long been recognized that the initiative process is a core value of our democracy. Californians continue to show strong support for direct democracy. But it’s not without its flaws. The majority of likely voters believe special interests have too much control in the process. Voters also have issues with the ballot, stating that the wording is confusing and there are too many propositions. 

The deficiencies in our direct democracy are most apparent in referendums. Referendums currently lack clarity and are required to appear last of all ballot measures. This causes confusion since voters are unclear whether they’re voting to preserve or overturn the law. This also means voters are less likely to cast a vote on a referendum due to voter fatigue and drop-off as they get further down the ballot.  

This current structure puts referendums at an immediate disadvantage and makes referendums vulnerable. Big money has exploited these fractures in the referendum process to their advantage and used it as yet another way to advance their causes. Corporations can spend a few bucks to undo laws that have been thoroughly vetted, passed by a majority of the Legislature and signed into law by the governor. Our direct democracy has been hijacked by the very entities it was meant to control. 

The mutation of our referendum process is evident in the bail bond industry’s success in overturning California’s law to reform the cash bail system. And in the tobacco industry’s current attempt to challenge a law that would have banned the sale of flavored tobacco products. Big money continues to abuse our referendum process to protect their profits. The cost of maintaining the status quo comes at the expense of protecting our youth from tobacco use and preventing low-income Californians from languishing in jail when they cannot afford bail.  

This is why I introduced Senate Constitutional Amendment 1 and Senate Bill 443. These complementary measures will radically improve clarity on voting for referendums by making it more intuitive. 

Similar to citizen initiatives, this will make it clear that supporters of the referendum are requesting a “Yes” vote, while the opponents are requesting a “No” vote. Additionally, these bills require referendums and citizen initiatives both appear on the ballot in the order they qualify. This ensures referendums receive the same level of review and consideration as an initiative.

Direct democracy was enacted to limit the railroads’ power and has since been derailed by the very special interests it was supposed to control. These measures are desperately needed reforms that will safeguard our referendum process from corporate influence and restore Hiram Johnson’s vision of direct democracy. Let’s get our referendum process back on track and return the power to the electorate. 

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