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Changes to the initiative process moving forward in Sacramento

By Ellen Taylor, VP for Advocacy, League of Women Voters of the Claremont Area

With nearly eight in 10 California voters supporting improvements to the state’s initiative process that increases clarity and provides voters more information, SB 1253 (Steinberg) was approved by the California senate.

SB 1253, the Ballot Initiative Transparency Act (BITA), will create clearer initiatives, simpler ballots and better information for California voters. Introduced by Senate Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, BITA is supported by a broad and diverse group of organizations that includes the League of Women Voters of California, California Common Cause, California NAACP and the California AARP, among others. These organizations, with more than 60 civic groups, spent the past year sharing ideas and opinions for changes to determine what would make the greatest improvements and enjoy the most support.

Although voters greatly value the voice that the initiative process provides them, increasingly they also feel like it no longer works as well as it should and that too often special interests highjack the process.

BITA keeps what voters like most about the process— based on polls and focus groups, as well as PPIC’s polling and discussions with dozens of civic organizations—while making improvements to the parts they feel work least well.

“What BITA will ensure is that the information voters receive will be better,” Helen Hutchison, president of the League of Women Voters of California said. “Voters deserve clear and straight-forward information about what initiatives do. This bill creates guidelines to ensure that the information voters receive is written in clear and straightforward language.”

The main elements of BITA would:

·  Give voters more useful information about initiatives so they can make informed decisions;

· Enhance the Secretary of State’s website and use of digital channels, giving voters one-stop access to information about individuals and groups behind each initiative and exposing the sources of funding;

· Allow voters to request an email version of the voter guide, reducing the costs of printing and mailing the guides;

· Create ballot materials that are drafted in clear and straight-forward language. Voters overwhelmingly want voter-friendly, understandable ballot statements and arguments.

· Require ballot statements to make it clear if they raise or impose a tax or repeal an existing law and avoid technical jargon;

· Identify and correct mistakes in an initiative before it appears on the ballot. Now, initiative backers have few options to correct or withdraw initiative language, even when legal flaws are identified. This law would give voters an opportunity to comment on initiatives before they are circulated for signature;

· Require the legislature to hold earlier public hearings to review initiatives;

· Allow the authors of an initiative to withdraw it after petitions and signatures are certified, but before ballots are printed, simplifying the ballot.

BITA would address California voters’ greatest concerns about the current initiative process. According to a recent PPIC survey, 83 percent of Californians agree that initiative wording is too complicated and confusing, 84 percent favor increasing public disclosure of funding sources for both signature-gathering and initiative campaigns. Almost as many, 77 percent, support a review process to help avoid legal problems and drafting errors.

BITA attempts to alter the opinion of most Californians that the initiative process has been dominated by big-money special interests that are able to spend more than $10 million and rely heavily on paid signature gathering firms. California’s initiative process began in 1911 by then Governor Hiram Johnson in order to bring issues to the people rather than have special interests make the laws. In short, BITA will return voting power to the people.

Proponents of the act believe potential voters will take a renewed interest in participating in the initiative process as complicated language that leads to voter apathy will be clarified. This will support a more participatory democratic process and enable the voters of California to be empowered so our system of democracy can function effectively. Voters will receive more information so that they can make informed decisions. It will also advance meaningful reform by allowing initiative backers to make changes to their proposals.

Under the proposal, backers of an initiative would lose no power and have nothing taken away from them—in fact, they would gain added power. Currently, initiative backers can’t make corrections and changes and can’t work out a better proposal with the Legislature that would potentially save themselves money and taxpayers’ money down the road.

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