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The People’s Power to Legislate

California is one of 26 states and the District of Columbia that provides its registered voters the opportunity to legislate via the ballot box. Voters legislate either through the direct initiative process or the veto referendum process. California allows voters the option to use both processes.1

The initiative and referendum processes provide pathways to shape policy outside of the legislative process. Whether initiated by activists, advocates, special interest groups, or the business sector, these processes are available to one and all, as evident from the number of initiatives and referendums appearing every election cycle. 

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What is an Initiative? What is a Referendum?

An Initiative2 is the ability to directly propose and enact state laws and amendments to the California Constitution. In order to be placed on a statewide ballot for consideration by voters, an initiative petition must be presented to the Secretary of State, certified by local election officials to have been signed by a specified number of qualified registered voters. An initiative measure may not address more than one subject.

A Referendum2 is the power of electors to approve or reject statutes, or parts of statutes, enacted by the Legislature. However, a referendum does not apply to urgency statutes, statutes calling elections, and statutes providing for tax levies or appropriations for usual current expenses of the State.

In order to be placed on a statewide ballot for consideration by voters, a referendum petition must be presented to the Secretary of State and certified by local election officials to have been signed by a specified number of qualified registered voters. A referendum petition must be submitted to the Secretary of State for certification within 90 days after the enactment date of the statute.

Both options require certain signature thresholds to be met to qualify for the ballot. Here in California, the number of signatures required to qualify a measure is determined by a percentage of the total number of votes cast for the office of governor in the preceding election.

Although the 2024 General Election is still over a year away, there are already at least a half-dozen initiatives and referenda headed for the ballot, all with potentially heavy economic effects that will generate multi-million-dollar campaigns advocating for and against critical issues.

Critics have expressed concerns over an overuse and abuse of the initiative and referendum processes, which arguably allow motivated and well-funded groups or individuals to easily advocate for or advance specific interests and bypass the traditional legislative process.

Currently, freshman State Assembly member Isaac Bryan (D-Los Angeles) has introduced a bill, AB 421, that would include new requirements for petition circulators to qualify a statewide ballot initiative or referendum. Assemblymember Bryan’s bill aims to ensure voters are better informed before signing a petition by requiring:

  • The name of the top three funders of the petition to be disclosed on the first page, along with an unbiased summary of the measure.
  • Paid signature gatherers to register with the California Secretary of State and wear a badge.
  • Petition signers to initial a statement saying that they’ve reviewed the top funders.
  • That at least 10% of the signatures are gathered by an unpaid volunteers.

As of this writing, AB 421 is yet to be assigned a committee hearing.   

Gabriela Villanueva is CAP’s Government and External Affairs Analyst. Questions or comments related to this article should be directed to