Much is expected of the California voter.
In any given election year, we may be asked to dust off our labor lawyer hats, brush up on oil and gas regulations, reacquaint ourselves with decades of tax policy, or analyze infrastructure funding. We may have to weigh the moral pros and cons of capital punishment, marriage equality or pig protection and — over and over again — oversee all things dialysis clinic.
This November is no different. Voters will be asked to consider seven thorny policy proposals, from abortion to zero emission vehicles. Many more failed to qualify for the ballot, including one to raise the minimum wage to $18 an hour. That means voters will decide the fewest measures in an election year since 1916.
What are these ballot measures really about? How did they make their way onto the ballot in the first place? And how did Californians first fall in love with direct democracy?
After months of signature gathering, fundraising and legislative wrangling, here are details on the statewide ballot measures this fall.
- Proposition 1: Putting abortion safeguards in the California constitution: After the news leaked in early May that the U.S. Supreme Court was planning to rule that the federal constitution doesn’t guarantee the right to an abortion — and it did reverse the five-decade-old precedent on June 24 — California’s top Democrats, vowing to “fight like hell,” proposed adding the protection to the state constitution. The proposed constitutional amendment was introduced in the Legislature in early June and was passed with the overwhelming support of both chambers by the end of the month. If approved by the voters, it would bar the state from denying or interfering with a person’s right to choose an abortion and contraceptives.California has long been a safe haven for abortion access. In 1969 the state Supreme Court ruled that the California constitution’s right to privacy implies the right to an abortion. Reproductive access is also protected by statute. Supporters hope this amendment will reiterate that policy more explicitly and render it harder to reverse in the future, though some legal scholars say the language is still too ambiguous.
- Propositions 26 and 27: Legalizing sports gambling, two ways: After the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a federal law banning state-regulated sports betting, two big-spending interests stepped up with California legalization proposals.Prop. 27 would allow Californians to bet on sports and other competitions online, but only through certified gaming tribes and large, well-established online betting companies. The measure, funded by industry giants FanDuel and DraftKings, would potentially direct hundreds of millions of dollars in fee revenue to housing and services for homeless Californians.Prop. 26, supported by some of the state’s tribal governments, would only legalize sports betting in-person at tribal casinos and designated horse tracks. The measure, which would also allow tribes to offer roulette and other dice games, would raise potentially tens of millions of dollars for the state budget, most of which would be spent at the discretion of the governor and Legislature.
- Proposition 28: Set aside school funding for arts and music: Sponsored by former Los Angeles Unified School District superintendent Austin Beutner, this measure would require the state to set aside a share of its revenue — likely between $800 million to $1 billion per year — for arts and education classes. The new money would be disproportionately reserved for schools with many low-income students to hire new arts staff.
- Proposition 29: Kidney clinic rules, third time a charm? This measure slaps dialysis clinics with a host of new restrictions, including a requirement that a doctor, nurse practitioner or a physician assistant be on site during all treatment hours. Centers would also be required to get state approval before shuttering or reducing services and to publicly list any doctors who have at least a 5% ownership stake in a clinic. Sound familiar? That’s because the Service Employees International Union-United Healthcare Workers West, the union supporting this measure, has tried and failed to persuade voters to support new dialysis center regulations twice before, in 2018 and 2020, over vehement and very costly industry opposition.
- Proposition 30: Millionaires paying for electric cars: This measure would impose a new 1.75% tax on any individual’s income of more than $2 million per year to raise between $3 billion to $4.5 billion each year to fund a collection of greenhouse gas reducing initiatives. Most of the money would go toward new incentives for Californians to buy zero-emission vehicles and to build new electric charging or hydrogen fueling stations. (Lyft, which is required to move toward ZEVs, is a major funder). A quarter of the new money would go toward wildfire fighting and prevention efforts.
- Proposition 31: Reconsidering a flavored tobacco ban: In 2020, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill banning the sale of all flavored tobacco products, whether smoked, chewed or vaped. The tobacco industry gathered enough signatures to ask voters to overturn the law with this referendum. (A reminder: Voting “yes” is to keep the law; voting “no” is to get rid of it.)
By 2014, California voters were sick of ballots larded up with too many measures, many of them highly technical, specific to one industry or difficult to understand.
So state lawmakers changed the rules. While initiatives can only go before voters in November, a tweak to the election code gave the Legislature more time to hold public hearings on those upcoming measures, while giving initiative backers the chance to revise or remove initiatives later in the process. The goal was a more deliberative, thoughtful process with more room for compromise.
But one person’s “compromise” is another person’s “legal extortion.”
Since 2016, initiative sponsors have pulled five partially-qualified measures from the ballot, but only in exchange for concessions from the Legislature. The most notorious example came in 2018 when the soda industry funded a ballot measure that would have made it much more difficult for local governments to raise taxes. They pulled from the initiative — which then-Gov. Jerry Brown called an “abomination” — after lawmakers agreed to ban new local soda taxes for the next 13 years. Critics at the time equated the strategy with nuclear brinksmanship and hostage taking, but most Democrats in the Legislature, however irate, weren’t willing to risk sending the tax-capping proposition to the voters.
This year, two off-ballot compromises were struck. Attorneys and consumer groups agreed to withdraw a measure that would have raised the cap on how much patients can sue for medical malpractice in exchange for a lower increase. And the former CEO of recycling company Recology and some environmentalists decided just before the June 30 deadline to pull a measure to phase out the use of non-recyclable plastic in exchange for an alternative bill.
So that’s two fewer measures for this November.