California's November 2016 Ballot Will Have an Awful Lot of Propositions

by | January 22, 2015

By Jessica Calefati and Josh Richman

California voters in November 2016 may be forced to read a ballot pamphlet as long and dense as a political science textbook _ and oddly enough, they'll have the millions who sat out last year's sleepy elections to thank for the extra work.

The number of signatures required to get a measure on the ballot is reset every four years, based on the votes cast for governor in the previous general election. Since only 42 percent of the state's registered voters _ a record low _ turned out in November, it's going to be easier than ever to put a proposed law before the people.

A complete list of 2016 ballot initiatives won't take shape until early next year, but the short list is already a mile long. It includes proposals to legalize marijuana for recreational use, overturn the new plastic bag ban, increase tobacco taxes, eliminate the death penalty, make over the landmark Proposition 13 and boost California's minimum wage even higher.

Another reason the fall 2016 ballot will be jam-packed is because state law now requires that all citizen initiatives go before voters in November. As a result, many Capitol observers are predicting the size of next year's ballot will be unwieldy and that campaign consultants will be forced to rethink their strategies to compete in an unusually crowded field.

"There's a storm of pent-up issues that folks have waited to put on the ballot in a presidential election year," said Corey Cook, director of the University of San Francisco's Leo T. McCarthy Center. "The sense now is that the ballot could be huge."

Over the past four years, 504,760 signatures were required to get on the ballot an initiative that seeks to change state law _ and for a constitutional amendment it took 807,615. Now, you need only 365,880 and 585,407, respectively.

California's lowest signature-gathering threshold in more than 30 years has some advocates cheering the savings they'll reap in getting measures on the ballot, but others are groaning about how much tougher it will be to reach voters in media markets saturated with proposition ads.

"According to the chatter, this is the year people will finally get off the sidelines and into the game," said Kurt Oneto, a Sacramento attorney who specializes in initiative and referendum law. "Time will tell if that speculation pans out."

It will certainly take some effort to beat the California record. In the November 1914 election, 48 ballot propositions appeared on the statewide ballot. In recent decades, the elections that have come the closest to that record were in November 1988 _ with 29 propositions _ and November 1990, when 28 propositions were on the ballot.

The Drug Policy Alliance considered putting a recreational pot measure on the ballot last year but decided against it to leave more time for raising the $10 million it needs to run a successful campaign. The group was instrumental in legalizing marijuana in Colorado and Washington. And with large shares of young people expected to vote in the next presidential election, the alliance thought 2016 sounded like the perfect year to guide the change in California, said Lynne Lyman, the alliance's California director.

Now, she sees the exceptionally low signature-gathering threshold as a "double-edged sword" that will help the group save money but may invite other marijuana advocates to run their own initiatives and contaminate the alliance's messaging.

"Most of us forgot that these levels get reset," Lyman said. "It wasn't something we anticipated or something I'd really even thought about." Many ballot measure proponents plan so far in advance that discussions already were underway last year for 2016, so the lowered signature threshold is more of a bonus than a motivator, said Shaun Bowler, a UC Riverside political science professor and expert on the initiative process.

Signature gatherers are typically paid for each swipe of the pen they collect, so the lower threshold means more to measures that don't have so much money behind them, he said. For example, the conservative Pacific Justice Institute may make a second attempt to block a state law that allows transgender students to select which bathrooms and locker rooms they use. The referendum last year narrowly missed getting on the ballot.

Bowler said there's "definitely" a risk of voter fatigue, in which voters beset by an avalanche of measures throw up their hands and just vote no. "The ones at the top of the ballot are likely to see higher votes," he said.

Whatever effect a slew of measures might have on one another's success, it's looking like fat times for California campaign consultants.

"We should start calling next year's ballot the Political Consultants Relief Act," said Steve Maviglio, a veteran Democratic strategist who quipped that the voter guide will be thick enough that someone might mistake it for "War and Peace," the famously long novel by Leo Tolstoy.

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POSSIBLE PROPOSITIONS FOR 2016

The measure that will appear on the 2016 ballot won't be finalized until early next year, but here are just some of the high-profile issues voters may be asked to decide.

RECREATIONAL POT: The Drug Policy Alliance is hoping young voters who turn out for next year's presidential election will help lift their marijuana legalization measure to success.

PLASTIC BAG BAN: Out-of-state manufacturers that oppose California's new law banning single-use plastic grocery bags hope to repeal the law at the ballot box. They've already submitted signatures and are girding for a costly fight.

PENSION REFORM: Former San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed abandoned his pension reform efforts last year, but he plans to bring the measure back in 2016.

MINIMUM WAGE: California's minimum wage will soon climb to $10 an hour, but some liberal Democrats, including Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, don't think that's enough and may back a measure calling for boosting the hourly minimum to $13.

TOBACCO TAX: Voters narrowly rejected a $1-per-pack tax on cigarettes in 2012, but health organizations and the deep-pocketed Service Employees International Union think 2016 may be the year to fight for a $2-per-pack tax.

PROPOSITION 30 EXTENSION: The California Teachers Association is pushing Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature to extend the temporary sales and income taxes voters approved at Brown's urging in 2010. If they don't, the union may put the taxes back on the ballot.

DEATH PENALTY: Last year, a federal judge ruled that California's death penalty system is so plagued with delays that it's unconstitutional. Capital punishment opponents may use the decision to again push a measure that would outlaw the practice here.

SPLIT ROLL: Changing California's Proposition 13 to make businesses pay more could mean millions more in revenue for school districts. Next year, the state's powerful teachers union may back a measure to create the "split" property-tax roll that's been considered here for decades.

BATHROOM BILL: A conservative advocacy group tried putting a transgender student rights bill _ which allows transgender students to pick which bathrooms and locker rooms they want to use _ on last year's ballot as a referendum and narrowly failed. Now that the signature threshold is lower, the group may try again to reverse the legislation.

OIL TAX: Billionaire and environmental activist Tom Steyer, now considering a U.S. Senate run in 2016, has floated the idea of taxing oil companies for every barrel of liquid gold they extract from California land. If the Legislature won't act, the ballot box might be an alternative.

(San Jose Mercury News staff writer Sharon Noguchi contributed to this report.)

(c)2015 San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.)