When does a ballot initiative become law in California? The answer seems obvious: After all the votes have been counted and a determination has been made that it was approved. Duh!
Tell that to the California Constitution. It says that statewide initiatives and referendums that have been passed by the voters go into effect the day after election day unless the initiative spells out another start date. But that makes no sense, because in most cases it is not known for sure if a proposition has passed on the day after an election because the ballots haven’t all been counted. In fact, some ballots may not even have arrived at the county elections office. A recent change to state election law allows mail ballots to arrive up to three days after the election and still be counted in the final tally.
It’s a constitutional paradox that has created some confusion in recent years. Here’s an example: Among the many initiatives on the November 2016 ballot was a referendum on whether to impose or rescind a statewide ban on plastic grocery bags that had been passed by the Legislature two years earlier. The measure was winning the day after the election and was deemed by pundits and pollsters to have passed — even though county elections officials were still processing thousands of ballots and the outcome wasn’t officially certified until December. So when grocers began complying with the ban immediately (as the ballot language said they should) they were collecting fees that might not really have been owed.
The potential for a law to be wrongly put into effect grows every year as more voters cast mail ballots.
In the end, the early call on the plastic-bag ban measure was correct and so there was no problem. But what if it had gone sideways? Were grocers going to track down all their customers and refund the fees? And what about future initiatives? The potential for a law to be wrongly put into effect grows every year as more voters cast mail ballots and the count on the day after the election becomes less reliable.
That’s where Proposition 71 on the June 5 primary ballot comes in. It would change the default effective date for ballot measures to five days after all the votes are fully and completely counted and the secretary of state has certified the election. There’s virtually no opposition to the measure (the ballot argument against it was written by Gary B. Wesley, an attorney who made it his mission 40 years ago to provide a rebuttal to unchallenged constitutional amendments placed on the ballot by the Legislature). Proposition 71 was placed on the ballot with the unanimous support of both houses of the Legislature. It deserves a unanimous yes from voters as well.