State Democrats consider bill to ban initiatives from primaries

State Democratic lawmakers are considering a move to dramatically alter California’s initiative process by prohibiting such measures from appearing on primary-election ballots.

Senate leader Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) confirmed Monday that his caucus may introduce a bill in the final days of this year’s legislative session that would mandate initiatives only go before voters in November general elections, which typically have higher participation than primary contests.

“It’s something we’re thinking about,” Steinberg said. “There ought to be the opportunity for the highest voter turnout possible for major initiatives.”

Fall elections typically draw more voters to the polls than springtime primaries. In June 2012, for example, a smaller and more conservative electorate is expected as Republicans pick a presidential nominee. Democrats are more likely to flock to the polls in November, when President Obama presumably will be up for reelection.


Steinberg said he was unsure whether an initiative bill would be introduced before Sept. 9, when the Legislature is scheduled to break for the year.

Republican critics of the proposal call it a political move driven by organized labor, aimed at thwarting a pair of ballot measures targeted for June 2012 — one that would place limits on state spending and another that seeks to curb political donations by unions. The spending measure already is on the June ballot, and backers of the union-dues measure are gathering signatures in hopes of qualifying for the spring election.

“This is an egregious, self-interested move by Democrats and the unions who support them to try to alter the Constitution to give themselves a political advantage,” GOP strategist Rob Stutzman said.

The proposal comes amid a multi-pronged Democratic effort to place curbs on the initiative process to restore a system that they say has strayed from its grass-roots beginnings.

This year, Democrats in Sacramento have introduced bills to raise fees for filing ballot measures, allow legislative amendments to voter-qualified initiatives, restrict initiative signature gatherers and require more public disclosure about who is funding initiative campaigns. Many of these measures are expected to land on Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk next month.

Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn., accused Democrats of trying “to neuter direct democracy in California.”

According to Shaun Bowler, a political science professor at UC Riverside, Democrats are trying to make the initiative process harder to use. “Generally speaking, the left is deeply suspicious of the ballot proposition because of late, Republicans have been better at using it.”

With long-standing Democratic majorities in the state Senate and Assembly, the ballot initiative has been the most effective way for Republicans to influence the public policy debate in California. Although their bills are often killed in the Legislature, Republicans in recent years have pushed through stronger sentencing laws for criminals, placed curbs on class-action lawsuits and made it harder for state lawmakers to raise taxes.

Gil Duran, a spokesman for Brown, said that although the administration was aware of some Democrats’ interest in pushing the fall-ballot-only measure, “we generally don’t comment on legislation that does not yet exist.”

Ultimately, Stutzman said, whether the idea becomes law may come down to Brown. “It puts the governor on the spot. It’s an extraordinary manipulation of the election process that I don’t think voters would appreciate.”