A Voter’s Guide to California’s 17 Statewide Ballot Measures

Thanks to the state’s longstanding tradition of direct democracy, every California voter becomes a lawmaker at the ballot box. But this year more than ever, citizen legislators of the electorate better do their homework. Seventeen state initiatives have made their way onto the fall ballot, including some of the most complex laws ever put to a popular vote.

Among the raft of statewide measures are proposals to legalize recreational cannabis, end the death penalty or speed it up, ban plastic bags and cap prescription drug costs. Not since 2000 have Californians been asked to wade through so many propositions. That’s not even counting a slew of local initiatives, which stand to make the Nov. 8 voter guide a record-setting 224 pages. In an exceedingly blue state where the presidential race is a given, high-stakes battles that affect our daily lives will play out by way of citizen-lawmaking. Study up now or get lost on Election Day.

Prop. 51: School bonds

Originally pitched by the state lawmakers as a way to help local schools, Prop. 51 would authorize $9 billion in bond debt to modernize K-12 and community college campuses. But the proposal bankrolled by the construction industry has drawn fierce criticism from reformers and a number of local public school advocates. Opponents of the measure say it would bolster the status quo—a school-bond industrial complex that enriches developers on the taxpayer dime—instead of improving upon on it. Gov. Jerry Brown called it “a blunderbuss effort” that would allow wealthy districts to cut in line before low-income communities.

Prop. 52: Medi-Cal funding

Should it pass, Prop. 52—arguably one of the most complicated initiatives on the ballot—would protect the state’s ability to fund Medi-Cal. California has long failed to put up enough money to trigger the max amount of federal matching funds indigent health care. That forces the 400 or so hospitals that accept Medi-Cal patients to operate at a huge loss. When the Great Recession hit in 2009, hospitals offered to pay the state fees to use as matching dollars. But when the economic crisis morphed into a state budget crisis in 2011, lawmakers spent $500 million from those fees on services that had nothing to do with Medi-Cal. Prop. 52 would protect those fees by keeping them in place and requiring a two-thirds vote of the Legislature to spend them on anything but they’re intended purpose: health care for people who can’t otherwise afford it.

Prop. 53: Revenue bonds

General obligation bonds, which are paid back by taxing the public, need approval from the electorate to pass. Prop. 53 would simply extend that requirement to revenue bonds, which are paid for with money generated by the project. The initiative would require statewide voter approval for government construction funded by more than $2 billion in revenue bonds. Wealthy Central Valley farmer Dean “Dino” Cortopassi penned the prop as a way to reign in state debt by making it harder for bureaucrats to run up a tab on pet projects. Opponents—including Gov. Jerry Brown, whose proposed bullet train and Delta tunnels comprise two of the biggest public works projects in state history—say it would prevent much-needed infrastructure from getting built.

Prop. 54: Public review

Two influential Republicans—former state Senator Sam Blakeslee and Palo Alto-based GOP donor Charles Munger Jr.—drafted Prop. 54 to prevent lawmakers from making last-minute changes to bills headed for the governor’s desk. The initiative would force the Legislature to post bills online for public review at least three days before a final vote. The measure would also expand access to live video of legislative action and allow people to later use that footage in political campaigns.

Prop. 55: Tax on the wealthy

Voters will be asked to add another 12 years to the life of a tax on incomes over $250,000 a year. Prop. 55 would allow the 1 to 3 percent surtax to sunset in 2030, with proceeds spent on public schools and healthcare programs.

Prop. 56: Cigarette tax

Four years after a similar measure was rejected at the ballot, voters will have yet another chance to raise the tax on tobacco. This time, with Prop. 56, the tax would amount to $2 a pack and apply to both traditional smokes and their newfangled electronic counterparts.

Prop. 57: Prison parole

Part of Gov. Jerry Brown’s broader effort to undo some of the tough-on-crime laws he helped usher in decades ago, Prop. 57 would qualify more nonviolent prisoners for early release based on credits for good behavior and taking classes during incarceration. It would also prevent juvenile offenders from getting shunted right away to an adult court hearing.

Prop. 58: Bilingual education

This would end a ban on bilingual education passed by California voters as part of a public backlash against multiculturalism in 1998. Prop. 58 would give county education offices far greater freedom to teach bilingual students in English and in their native tongue.

Prop. 59: Citizens United

As an advisory measure, this proposition asks voters whether they want state policymakers to work toward repealing the U.S. Supreme Court’s controversial Citizens United decision on money in politics. The 2010 ruling held that corporations have a First Amendment right to spend unlimited amounts of cash on national campaigns. But overturning the decision would require the radical step of amending the U.S. Constitution. Because there’s such a high bar for revoking Citizens United, state legislators took to the ballot to ask for the blessing of California’s electorate.

Prop. 60: Condoms in porn

Adult film performers would have no choice but to use condoms in explicit sex scenes under this initiative. Violations would result in penalties and fines, but only movie producers would be on the hook.

Prop. 61: Prescription drug pricing

Big Pharma dropped tens of millions of dollars into a campaign opposing Prop. 61, which would ban state agencies from paying more than the lowest price the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs spends on the same drug. The “price ceiling,” however, would apply to only one buyer: the state.

Prop. 62: Repeal death penalty

Two rival death penalty measures will appear on the November ballot (see Prop. 66), making for a historic showdown over the future of state-sanctioned executions. Prop. 62 would overturn the 1978 law that necessitates capital punishment for the worst crimes. It would also direct more money made from prison work to restitution for victims.

Prop. 63: Gun control

Drafted during the intense public debate about gun laws and mass shootings, this initiative would ban the sale and possession of high-capacity ammunition magazines in California. Prop. 63 would also require background checks for buying ammo and create new felony charges for gun thefts.

Prop. 64: Marijuana

One of the most talked-about measures on the fall ballot, this initiative would legalize marijuana and hemp under state law. Though cannabis would remain illegal by federal standards, Prop. 64 would render it taxable by state and local governments and sellable to anyone over the age of 21.

Prop. 65: Carry-out bags

The plastic bag lobby is backing this measure, which would require fees charged for paper or reusable bags to fund environmental programs. Under the existing plastic bag ban, retailers can only use those fees for compliance measures, consumer education and bag costs. Prop. 65 would simply redirect them.

Prop. 66: Speed up death penalty

This initiative is backed by former NFL player Kermit Alexander, whose mom, sister and two nephews were murdered in their own home in 1984. Their killer remains on death row. Alexander wants Prop. 66 to pass because it would accelerate capital punishment by imposing new time limits. It would also curtail the appeal process, which is worrisome for people who have been wrongly convicted.

Prop. 67: Plastic bag referendum

Prop. 67 allows voters to decide whether to uphold or repeal a statewide plastic bag ban. The ban passed through the Legislature in 2014, and now requires approval from a majority of Californians before it becomes law. Most cities in Santa Clara County have already 86’d single-use plastic bags. If Prop. 67 passes, the ban would become statewide.

This article has been updated.

Jennifer Wadsworth is the former news editor for San Jose Inside and Metro Silicon Valley. Follow her on Twitter at @jennwadsworth.


  1. Prop. 54: Public review YES
    Prop. 66: Speed up death penalty YES
    Prop. 67: Plastic bag referendum YES

    Everything else is garbage and safe to ignore.

        • SJO,

          Sal’s just doing it because he cares about fitting in with the other curmudgeons on the site. Although I did agree with his “Too much misogynistic comments” on the tampon tax article the other day.

  2. The scary one is prop 57. I heard a good interview with a SoCal DA that went through the crimes that ARE NOT classified as violent under CA laws. One example is rape of an unconscious person (where are all the people who righly protested the weak sentence for the Stanford case now that prop 57 will make all those perpetrators eligible for even earlier release?). The proposition also says penalties should only be based on the base crime, not previous crimes, so 3-strikes sentences will be eigible for parole as will cases where the defendent pled down a violent crime to a non-violent conviction (on a side note, I despise the culture of llea bargains our DAs so rely on). This is totally a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

  3. Prop 60: it’s a lot more complex than that. Voting yes on this would provide too much economic incentive to return to the days of exploitation in the sex movie industry — currently, a lot of the performers -are- producers, and having to put their name and address on everything will open them up even more to the same type of stalkers that led to a crackdown on availability of personal information from the DMV. And creating a new private right of action against the producers if the state doesn’t act on complaints will only clog the courts.

    Mandatory condoms in porn is one thing, but this doesn’t provide funding for the attorney general to take the actions this bill would need — and because private persons don’t have the AG subpoena mechanism for requesting information before a suit is filed, the suit would have to be filed and discovery initiated before producers would even know that they would have to provide the proof that condoms were worn in the first place.

    There’s a lot more that’s bad about this proposition. The underlying drive is good, but everything attached to it is just an excuse to force porn performers to expose their information for harassment purposes. There’s not even a “false private prosecution can cause the plaintiff to pay for the defendants’ legal fees” clause, so it will become a “bankruptcy by litigation” attack.

  4. The article begins with a statement I disagree with adamantly:

    “Thanks to the state’s longstanding tradition of direct democracy, every California voter becomes a lawmaker at the ballot box.”

    The statement makes it sound like “oh boy, we get to pass a law.” Well the truth is our legislators do not want to pass certain laws because it is not politically a great idea. Our legislature is simply, LAZY.

    The other tings that is bothersome about this initiative process is the voter base is too ignorant onthe issues and too lazy to get educated on them.

  5. A useful voter guide.

    But, it seems that the election authorities make it very difficult to know what percent of vote is required to pass a measure.

    For example, it appears that Proposition 51 authorizing school bonds requires a 55% supermajority to pass. But I have yet to find that explicitly stated in any of the physical or online documentation of the measure.

    The only source I have found that offers a generic explanation is Ballotpedia:


    “A supermajority requirement is a requirement in some votes and elections where more than a simple majority of those voting must vote in favor of a proposal in order for it to be considered to have been approved.
    Examples of supermajority requirements:

    Parcel tax elections in California. Local parcel tax ballot measures must win a 2/3rds supermajority in order to pass.
    School bond elections in California. Local school bond ballot propositions require a 55% supermajority vote to pass.”

    Great. But if these are just “examples”, what is the FULL STORY?

    Election authorities need to be open, transparent, and explicit about these things.

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