A new push to reform California’s referendum rules

Rideshare driver Jorge Vargas raises his No on 22" sign in support as app based gig workers
Jorge Vargas raises his “No on 22” sign in support as app-based gig workers held a driving demonstration in front of Los Angeles City Hall in October 2020.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Tuesday, March 21.

There’s a new effort underway to change California’s referendum system.

Assemblymember Isaac Bryan (D-Los Angeles) is set to introduce legislation this week designed to make it more difficult for campaigns to mislead voters when they circulate petitions to qualify a statewide referendum.

My colleague Taryn Luna reports:

“The bill marks the latest showdown in a proxy war between labor and business at the state Capitol and could become one of the most high-profile political fights in California this year.”


Bryan said the original intent of the “very old” process has been “subverted by a small, disgruntled, well-funded, well-powered set of interests that often undermine the collective will of the people of California.”

That echoes how labor unions, government watchdogs and environmental activists have spoken about the election law, which was adopted in 1911. They’ve accused corporations of misleading California voters during the petition gathering process and undermining democracy by using the state’s current referendum rules to delay and sometimes reverse progressive policies.

Bryan’s bill would create more government oversight of the interest groups and paid signature gatherers. One provision would require at least 10% of signatures needed for a referendum to qualify for the ballot to be gathered by unpaid volunteers.

Under the bill, paid signature gatherers would have to register with the California secretary of state and disclose the ballot measure petitions they intend to present to voters, proponents told Taryn.

As the law is written now, groups eyeing a referendum must obtain enough signatures to represent 5% of the number of voters in the previous gubernatorial election.

Once those signatures are certified by the state, the petition becomes a ballot measure in a subsequent statewide election, asking voters to either overturn a previously approved law with a “yes” vote, or uphold it by marking “no.”


The proponents of statewide referendums and ballot measures often contract outside firms to gather the petition signatures. Often, the workers hired to collect those signatures are paid per signature.

And while it’s a crime to intentionally mislead people or make false statements, there isn’t much accountability for signature gatherers. Union officials have accused signature gatherers of deliberately deceiving residents in an effort to get referendums approved for the ballot.

The Times spoke to more than a dozen people last year who said “petition circulators for the ballot measure to overturn AB 257 lied to them about what they were signing.”

That state law, which aimed to increase wages and improve conditions for California fast-food workers, was opposed by a coalition of fast-food corporations and industry trade groups, which utilized the state’s referendum system for a counterattack.

The new rules were supposed to go into effect on Jan. 1, but the referendum to overturn it qualified for the 2024 ballot, delaying implementation until the law is decided by California voters.

Oil companies used a similar strategy this year, successfully stalling a state ban on some oil drilling until a referendum they backed goes to voters — also in 2024.


Earlier this month, a California judge upheld most of Proposition 22, a ballot measure backed by Uber, Lyft and other ride-hailing and delivery service companies that overturned part of a 2019 labor law.

“This is a really disgusting abuse of power, and it is an example of one of the ways that corporations currently act as if they’re above the law just by the nature of having enough money to do whatever they want,” Melissa Romero of California Environmental Voters told Taryn. “And voters are sick of it.”

The reform effort has gotten some pushback from the California Chamber of Commerce, Taryn reported this week, with the organization arguing that companies rarely launch campaigns to overturn state laws.

State data from 1912 through this March show groups have tried 96 times in total to get a referendum on the ballot. Of those attempts, 52 qualified for the ballot and have been voted on (two are slated for the 2024 election). And of those referenda, voters approved 22 — roughly 42%.

And now, here’s what’s happening across California:

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Last-minute negotiations between L.A. Unified officials and the union representing thousands of non-teaching workers broke down Monday, setting the stage for a three-day strike — beginning today — that will shut down the second-largest school district in the U.S. You can follow our strike coverage here: Los Angeles Times

The studios of United Recording hold a vital place in music history, hosting a number of artists as they crafted iconic albums — from Ray Charles and Frank Sinatra to Green Day and Kendrick Lamar. But after recent layoffs and the owner announcing the end of day-to-day operations, the fate of the famed L.A. music studio is in limbo. Los Angeles Times

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An upcoming mandate to require ethnic studies classes for California’s public high school students has some districts in the state awash in angry, accusatory emails. Battle lines are forming as educators across the state work to develop curriculum that examines racial issues, which some parents vocally oppose. San Francisco Chronicle

Gov. Gavin Newsom is hoping the Biden administration can help make it possible to allow Medi-Cal to cover rent for some Californians. Newsom is calling the program “transitional rent” and aims to provide up to six months of rent or temporary housing for unhoused people and those on the verge of homelessness. “I’ve been talking to the president,” the governor told Kaiser Health News. “We cannot do this alone.” Los Angeles Times


Beginning in the 1990s, CalPERS began offering retirees long-term care insurance, promising it would not substantially raise rates on certain plans. Then plan holders on fixed incomes saw rates jump 85% in 2012. Retirees sued and now CalPERS is getting ready to foot a roughly $800-million settlement. CalMatters


Two former Torrance police officers linked to a racist texting scandal could face criminal charges for shooting and killing a Black man in 2018. Documents reviewed by The Times indicate a grand jury is expected to meet today and begin hearing evidence. Christopher DeAndre Mitchell was sitting in a car and holding an air rifle when he was fatally shot by former officers Anthony Chavez and Matthew Concannon. Los Angeles Times

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The U.S. COVID-19 emergency will formally end on May 11. Times health and science reporter Melissa Healy eloquently puts that milestone in perspective, writing that it “marks neither victory nor peace,” but rather “a cessation of hostilities with a dangerous virus that is still very much with us.” The key question moving forward in a post-pandemic world will be: How immune are we? Los Angeles Times

A massive offshore wind farm is planned off the San Luis Obispo County coast, but it’s unclear what impacts the emerging industry will have on fish, whales and other marine life. Researchers are tapping into ocean noise, working to understand as much as they can about marine life before the turbines go up and start spinning. San Luis Obispo Tribune


The Girl Scouts have a new cookie, but good luck finding a box. The organization tried something new with its Raspberry Rally cookie, offering them as an online exclusive. But the stock quickly sold out, creating a resale market in which boxes initially sold for $6 are going for as much as $200. Guess I’ll stick with the Samoas. Los Angeles Times

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Today’s California landmark is from Dick Stanley of Walnut Creek: Echo Lake in El Dorado County.

A cabin surrounded by trees is reflected in a lake.
Take a moment to reflect on this August 2012 photo from lower Echo Lake.
(Dick Stanley)

Dick writes:

Echo Lake is a magic place — beautiful, uncrowded, not commercialized. Many of the cabins have been there for generations. It has all the richness of the high Sierra: the forests, the granite, the water, the hiking trails. It is indeed an essential California landmark.

What are California’s essential landmarks? Fill out this form to send us your photos of a special spot in California — natural or human-made. Tell us why it’s interesting and what makes it a symbol of life in the Golden State. Please be sure to include only photos taken directly by you. Your submission could be featured in a future edition of the newsletter.

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