Getting On Ballot Only Half the Battle

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Successful ballot measure campaigns in California can cost millions of dollars. (Photo: Getty/Kevork Djansezian)

As every smart politico knows, there are two distinct stages of direct democracy in California: getting your proposition on the ballot and then getting voters to actually ratify your proposition.

And so in a few cases this season, the real question may be not whether a measure qualifies for the November 6 statewide election... but rather will there'll be enough money to get it over the goal line.

Case in point: the referendum measure to reject the state Senate districts drawn by California's citizen redistricting panel.

The first goal of the Republicans opposed to the maps was to have the California Supreme Court step in and block implementation, arguing that the likelihood of the referendum's qualification meant that -- under the language of Proposition 20 -- the maps couldn't be used.

But now, almost three weeks after the Supremes declined to intervene, opponents have only the referendum itself as signatures are verified by local elections officials. As of Monday (PDF), the referendum's chances of qualifying were looking ever so stronger; with just eleven days left to go, more than 74% of the signatures were coming back as valid... a rate that, if it holds, translates into more than the 504,760 needed to earn a spot on the November ballot.

But if that happens, there's still a lot of work to do. Documents filed last month show (PDF) that the campaign was essentially flat broke as of December 31, with only $620.31 in the bank and outstanding debts of $214,069.53.

Supporters say they'll soldier on. Campaign manager Dave Gilliard says fundraising will begin again once the redistricting referendum qualifies.

And to date, the money has almost exclusively come from the California Republican Party; in fact, 80 cents of every dollar raised by the Senate redistricting referendum campaign came from the state GOP in 2011. And as it's been noted, the party itself ended 2011 with its coffers depleted.

"The party will support the passage of this measure as part of its effort to pass several initiatives on the fall ballot," said state GOP chairman Tom Del Beccaro in an email.

Meantime, other ballot measure campaigns will also need to do some heavy lifting beyond just the effort to qualify. That could include the pet project of wealthy civil rights attorney Molly Munger, whose tax initiative was cleared for signature gathering late Monday afternoon.

Munger said last week that she intends to spend her own money to gather the signatures needed to qualify, but has suggested there's no such pledge when it comes to the fall campaign to pass her income tax increase on most Californians, with the revenue mandated for K-12 schools. And while polling suggests 2012 could prove a more friendly climate for a tax increase than in other years, taxes are still a hard slog when it comes to the California electorate -- one that takes a well-financed campaign.

But for some initiatives, it's getting on the ballot that looks more daunting than getting Californians to cast a "yes" vote. Case in point: the still nascent but potentially explosive measure to place a strict cap on future state budget spending. The spending cap initiative, which would effectively reinstate the 1979 'Gann Limit,' reported on Monday a $200,000 contribution from the Orange County based GOP group New Majority. That may help grease the wheels, but they will likely need ten times that much (or more) to actually gather the 807,615 signatures needed for a constitutional amendment.

But if the polls are correct, the measure could catch fire if it actually qualifies. Last month, the Public Policy Institute of California found 62% of likely voters favored the generic idea of a strict spending limit. Sure, that could be whittled down by an opposition campaign showing the possible impacts of a tight spending cap -- but it shows the built-in political advantage the proposed initiative has before it even hit the streets.

Bottom line: the next few weeks are crucial for initiatives that are eyeing the November ballot, especially as they try to enlist more backers -- and more bucks -- to their causes.

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About John Myers

John Myers is senior editor of KQED's new multimedia California Politics & Government Desk.  He has covered California politics for most of the past two decades -- serving previously as Sacramento bureau chief for KQED News and, most recently, as political editor for KXTV News10 (ABC) in Sacramento. He moderated the only gubernatorial debate of 2014, and was named one of the nation's top statehouse reporters by The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @johnmyers.
  • Reilleyfam

    Nothing good ever comes from an initiative. Vote no, now & always.