(cross posted at Fox & Hounds Daily)
The Assembly recently passed legislation that, over a six year period, would raise the current $200 fee for filing ballot initiatives at the attorney general’s office up to $2000.
The legislation addresses two real and related problems, but in a way that reinforces the worst features of the state’s initiative process.
Those two problems? The first is administrative cost. The current $200 fee doesn’t begin to cover the administrative time and effort necessary to review such measures and give them an official title and summary. Effectively, the low fee is a state subsidy to initiative sponsors. Establishing a higher fee is an attempt to cover more of the administrative costs.
The second is the proliferation of ballot initiatives. More than 100 initiatives were filed with the AG’s office last year, but only a handful of those have qualified for the ballot. What’s driving all that filing? For one thing, the low fee represents a very cheap way for a Californian to get attention for an idea however wacky (Consider the initiative filed on Christmas music last year). The other is that initiative sponsors, because of strict California rules that make it nearly impossible to amend measures once they have been filed, are filing multiple versions of the same measure to cover their bases.
It would be good if fewer unnecessary measures were filed. Unfortunately, the Assembly suggests doing this by raising the filing fee. That’s a crude method. Ballot access in California is already limited to the very rich; this fee just makes things worse.
If the goal is to reduce the number of frivolous filings, there are two changes that make more sense than raising the fee.
1. Make it easier for initiative sponsors to make changes to their measures once they are filed. Right now, if you want to change an initiative, you have to refile, which requires starting over and can cause months of delays because of the inflexibility of the election calendar. This inflexibility is driving the practice of filing multiple measures. Instead, initiative sponsors should be given far more leeway to make changes to their measures after filing – as long as the changes are consistent with the measure. This not only would reduce the number of measures filed but also would reduce drafting errors.
2. If there is to be a barrier to filing, it should be based on popular support, not money.
Instead of charging a $2,000 fee, demand instead that before an initiative can be filed, the sponsors must show seriousness by submitting 2,000 valid signatures from registered California voters when they first file an initiative. That’s a big enough number of signatures to dissuade people who are simply looking for attention, but small enough to be achievable on the grass roots level.
Of course, these access issues are small, compared to the need for broad initiative reform. Such reform should not be as concerned with access as it is with integration. The California initiative process exists in a parallel universe, outside the reach of the other institutions of representative government. For example, this is the only place in the world where the legislative body can’t amend an initiative statute without another vote in the people. Reform must integrate the initiative and referendum with the legislature, to create a conversation that makes voters and their elected representative partners in the governance of the state.