Making Democracy Work

CA Initiative and Referendum Systems

Voting in California

Understanding Your California Ballot

How many times have you looked at your ballot and wondered why on earth you're voting on so many things? Here is a little bit of background on California's initiative and referendum systems:

What is a proposition?
A term used for any ballot measure to be voted on by the people. It can be an initiative or a referendum.

What is an initiative?
A brand new law or constitutional amendment and voted on by the people.

In California, initiatives can be proposed by the Legislature or by the people through the direct initiative process. The direct initiative process means a petition with the required number of signatures automatically qualifies for the ballot. Some states allow only indirect initiatives, which means a measure that receives the necessary signatures moves to the Legislature for further action.

All constitutional amendments must be approved by a vote of the people. Laws can be approved by the Legislature or by the people. Sometimes the Legislature is prevented from changing a law that has been passed by a vote of the people. In that case, the Legislature can submit a proposed change in the law to a vote of the people. This is a legislative initiative.

What is a referendum?
A vote by the people to approve or reject an existing law. It is law referred to the people, triggered in two ways: 1) Legislature sends a proposed bill directly to the people instead of deciding it themselves (legislative referendum) or, 2) the people can attempt to repeal a law even after it has been passed by the Legislature (popular referendum). California is one of 24 states to allow this.

Is California unique?
Between 1912 and 2010, Californians qualified more initiatives for the ballot than any other state except Oregon. During that period, 1,657 California initiatives and referendums were circulated for signature; only 348 (20 percent) qualified for the ballot and only 116 (7 percent) were approved.

View the timeline for adopting an initiative here