Unions, Environmental Advocates Press to Reform CA Referendum Process

Suzanne Potter | California News Service
Assembly Bill 421 would reform California's ballot referenda process, which seeks to repeal laws. It would not apply to ballot initiatives supporting new policy. Photo Credit: Freepik

Unions, environmental groups and other progressive organizations are leading the charge to reform California’s referendum process, which allows voters to repeal laws passed by the legislature.

Assembly Bill 421 came about after the oil industry gathered signatures to repeal a law blocking new drilling in neighborhoods.

Assemblymember Isaac Bryan, D-Los Angeles, who introduced the bill, said the current system incentivizes signature gatherers to mislead voters.

“The oil companies then spent nearly $25 million in 90 days to gather the signatures to pause the law, so they could apply for new drilling permits and put it on the referendum,” Bryan recounted. “And there was hours of documented video evidence that many of the signature gatherers were just outright lying to people.”

Currently, it is legal to word a referendum in a confusing way, in which a “yes” vote would overturn the law in question. Under the proposed bill, voters would simply decide whether to keep or repeal the law. The California Chamber of Commerce opposes the measure, arguing it would make signature gathering more expensive and should require a constitutional amendment.

Bryan added the bill would require signature gatherers to wear a badge with their name, identification number and photo.

“Folks should have to have adequate training and also be registered,” Bryan contended. “So that it’s clear that, if they are violating the ethics of signature gathering, that can be reported in a way that’s accountable.”

The bill would require petitions to identify the referendum’s top three donors and mandates at least 10% of signature gatherers be community-based volunteers. The bill has already passed the State Assembly. Its next stop is the State Senate Elections Committee.

Support for this reporting was provided by The Carnegie Corporation of New York.

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