What Happened to the Big Changes to California Elections?

The campaign text messages have stopped, and your recycling bin is finally empty of mailers. But while it’s not election season anymore, California lawmakers are still tinkering with how voting happens.

The number of election-related bills introduced this session — close to 50 — is average, election officials said. But that number has been whittled down since January, and this week’s policy committee deadline may narrow the active proposals more.

Some bigger measures failed early on — including a constitutional amendment that would have changed the state superintendent of public instruction from an elected position to one appointed by the governor.

Sen. Scott Wiener, a San Francisco Democrat, dropped his effort to provide more detail to voters on who is funding ballot measures after the bill was heavily amended in committees. The amendments “reduced the impact to the point that it was no longer worth passing,” said Erik Mebust, spokesperson for Wiener’s office.

There has been little action yet on another constitutional amendment, inspired by the 2019 failed recall of Gov. Gavin Newsom, to limit a recall ballot for statewide officials to only asking voters “yes” or “no” on removing the official. Under the proposal, a recalled governor would be replaced by the lieutenant governor and others would be replaced in a special election.

And a bill that would speed up vote counting  by changing how mail ballots are processed is in limbo, having passed the Assembly but been sent to the Senate appropriations “suspense file.”

That issue has been a key focus for Kim Alexander, president of the nonpartisan California Voter Foundation, who says the state’s notoriously slow results are not just embarrassing but bad for representation and voter confidence.

“The longer that it takes to determine a winner in a contest, the less time that winner has to prepare an agenda for their stint in public office,” she told CalMatters. “The longer that it takes to get the results out to the public, the more suspicious people become.”

She’s not surprised, however, that momentum for bigger election changes has diminished: “Unfortunately, people get really excited about election issues during and immediately following elections. And then you get to the start of the new year and folks might put that behind them.”

But there are still some proposals that could impact voting in 2024. Here are some of the key bills:

Making sense of the ballot

Ballot language can be confusing. Look no further than Proposition 8, which asked voters to ban gay marriage. Voting “no” meant voting “yes” on gay marriage, while voting “yes” meant gay marriage would be disallowed.

The 2008 measure was approved by 52% of voters, then superseded by the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2012 ruling legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide. But it’s not the only example: Propositions 6 and 10 on the 2018 ballot — a repeal on the state gas tax, and a rent control measure, respectively — drew similar confusion.

Assembly Bill 421, authored by Culver City Democrat Isaac Bryan, would simplify language on the ballot to make more clear what voters are deciding. When he introduced the bill, Bryan said its aim was to curb abuse of the ballot measure process — increasingly being used by wealthy corporations to overturn laws.

The 2024 ballot already includes two such measures: one by the oil and gas industry to overturn a ban on new oil and gas wells within 3,200 feet of homes, schools, hospitals and other “sensitive” facilities; another by the fast food industry to overturn the law creating a state council to set wages and other workplace standards.

But the current version of the bill is vastly different than what was first introduced.

Originally, the bill sought to curb disinformation by requiring signature gatherers to disclose whether they are paid or volunteers; mandating training and registration with the Secretary of State’s office;  and instituting a three-year ban if someone violates the law.

In its latest form, the bill focuses on one primary fix: clarifying ballot language for referendums to either say “keep the law” or “overturn the law.” It’s also now an urgency bill, so if it becomes law, it can take effect for new measures added to the 2024 ballot.

Bryan’s office did not make him available for comment on the amendments.

SEIU California, part of the Empower California Voters coalition backing this effort, says while it plans to continue fighting for further reforms to signature gathering, the bill still “responds urgently to pain points reported by voters: confusing ballot language that is easily exploited by corporations spending their vast wealth to veto policies they don’t like,” Tia Orr, the union’s executive director, said in a statement to CalMatters.

“Under AB 421, voters’ ballots will match their intent,” she wrote. “We know that the best way to do this is a clear statement of what a voter is choosing: to keep or overturn the law. ”

Clearing up the language has strong bipartisan support among voters, according to a poll published in June by UC Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies: 81% of registered voters said they supported clarifying whether a referendum’s intent is to uphold or overturn a law.

Poll respondents also supported other aspects of AB 421 that have now been gutted: requiring a portion of signatures for a referendum to be gathered by volunteers, a requirement that the top three funders of a referendum be disclosed on the signature pages and requiring paid signature gatherers to sign a statement saying they are giving voters accurate information.

Who draws your districts

Redistricting is the once-a-decade process of redrawing election districts after each Census to make sure each has the same number of people. But without guardrails in place, those who draw the maps can use the process to preserve their own power.

For legislative and congressional maps in 2010 and 2020, California adopted an independent commission to take the power out of the hands of elected officials. The idea has trickled down to some counties and cities, but because state law doesn’t require local independent commissions, local redistricting has varied widely, leading to some allegations of gerrymandered maps.

That’s why, this year, we’re seeing more bills to require independent redistricting — though some may overlap.

Building on ordinances in Los Angeles, San Diego, Fresno, Riverside and Kern counties, legislation this year proposes independent redistricting commissions for Orange and Sacramento counties.

Sen. María Elena Durazo also introduced a bill for the city of Los Angeles, though that was later amended to any charter city with a population of at least 2.5 million. Her bill and the Sacramento County bill passed through a committee today, beating the end of the week deadline.

But is this piecemeal approach best? Assemblymember Bryan argues that a statewide bill is needed.

That’s why he introduced two bills. The first is AB 1248, which would require independent redistricting commissions for cities and counties with more than 300,000 residents by the next round in 2030 and would include school and community college districts.

“This is an approach that really answers the question and calling that’s coming statewide,” Bryan said at a July 5 Senate elections committee hearing.

If the statewide requirement fails, though, Bryan has a backup plan: AB 764, which strengthens rules around redistricting, regardless of who draws the maps.

Officials from Common Cause California, a good government advocacy group that is co-sponsoring AB 1248 and AB 764, said they’re excited to see the “groundswell of support” for independent redistricting this year.

“There are some technical amendments to do to make sure the bills don’t conflict with each other,” said Laurel Brodzinsky, legislative director for the organization. “But definitely on a policy level, it’s really exciting to see.”

The bills are opposed by groups representing local governments, including the California State Association of Counties, the Urban Counties of California and the Rural County Representatives of California.

In their opposition letter, they wrote that commissions needed more financial resources and support to achieve the goals of the bill and without it “we are concerned that counties will be set up for failure and such a failure would only serve to validate public distrust in the redistricting process and in our democratic systems that are already under intense public scrutiny.”

Who funds campaigns

Where there’s talk of election reform, you can expect talk of campaign finance.

A bill by Democratic Sens. Tom Umberg of Santa Ana and Ben Allen of Redondo Beach that cleared the policy committee deadline last week proposes expanding public financing of campaigns. The intent of SB 24 is to level the playing field for candidates against those backed by wealthy corporations or interest groups.

If passed, the bill will ask voters to decide in November 2024 whether to lift the ban on public financing of campaigns for state offices and those in counties, most cities and districts. Currently, only charter cities permit public financing programs.

California voters have previously rejected similar ballot measures — though, unlike the current legislation, all three of the failed bills proposed a specific public financing program for state offices.

Some opponents say the legislation would make no change to the status quo because unless public money is the only source of campaign financing, candidates would still face the same financial disadvantages.

Another bill, AB 83, to prohibit foreign-influenced businesses from contributing to California campaigns, was shelved by its author.

Keeping elections secure

While California’s 2022 elections went off without major incidents, some lawmakers aim to ensure that remains the case ahead of the 2024 election.

AB 969, introduced by Assemblymember Gail Pellerin, a Santa Cruz Democrat and the new chairperson of the Assembly elections committee, is a response to Shasta County’s termination of its contract with Dominion Voting Systems over unproven allegations of fraud by the company, which provides voting machines.

The bill bans jurisdictions from terminating contracts for a certified voting system without having a plan in place for a replacement. It also seeks to prevent elections officials from choosing or being required to manually tally ballots in elections where there are more than 1,000 registered voters. After passing the Assembly, the bill has made it through the Senate committee process.

Another bill aimed at election integrity is from Assemblymember Mia Bonta, an Oakland Democrat. Her AB 37 would allow candidates or elected officials less restricted use of campaign funds to pay for security expenses.

Bonta cited threats against fellow legislators in her introduction of the bill, which is before the Senate appropriations committee.

“As public servants, there is a lot we humbly and willingly sacrifice to serve, including spending time with family and our privacy,” she said. “However, the one thing we should never be willing or expected to give up is our sense of safety, or the safety of our families, and those who work closely with us.”

Sameea Kamal is a reporter with CalMatters.

One Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *