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California’s November Ballot Could Be Shortest Ever

| June 13, 2014
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The outlook isn't great for voter turnout tomorrow. (David Paul Morris/Getty)

November’s ballot could be the shortest in years. (David Paul Morris/Getty)

After months of private maneuvering, polling and even some expensive signature-gathering efforts that appear to have been in vain, November’s statewide ballot in California is looking like the smallest ever when it comes to propositions.

State law requires that ballot measures clear all hurdles at least 131 days before the election; and in the case of Nov. 4, that’s June 26.

In truth, though, there are deadlines that come much earlier — unless the measure is written by the Legislature.

But we’ll come back to that in a minute.

At this juncture, five measures have either qualified for California’s fall ballot or are sure bets to be included; a sixth also has pretty good odds, though it remains in some political limbo at the state Capitol.

Six propositions would be the lowest on any general election ballot since California enacted the direct democracy system in 1911. The low-water mark, to date, for propositions was seven measures in both 2002 and 1916.

The small crop of 2014 measures stands in contrast to the more than four dozen proposed laws that have been in circulation for voter signatures in the 2013 and 2014 cycle.

As of now, only four measures have officially qualified. They include an effort to lift the state’s existing cap on medical malpractice awards; an effort to change how health insurance rates are regulated; a referendum on the state’s first off-reservation Indian casino project; and the expanded state budget rainy day fund crafted by Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature.

The fifth likely candidate is an initiative, now in the process of signature verification, to change some nonviolent felony crimes into misdemeanors. The random sampling by elections officials of signatures (PDF) suggests it will be certified for the ballot by the official deadline.

And there might be a sixth measure: a still-being-discussed statewide water bond to replace the $11 billion proposal now sitting on the ballot unless lawmakers recraft it before adjourning at the end of August.

Of the fall 2014 crop, expect the medical malpractice initiative — which also includes drug-testing rules for doctors — and the health insurance regulation initiative to be the biggest spending campaigns.

So when will the ballot be officially all set? Well, for the water bond and any other measures crafted by lawmakers, the deadlines get … sorry … fluid.

Although state election law clearly says that no measure may be placed on the ballot within 131 days of the election, don’t forget that legislators and the governor write laws. And they can suspend those laws when it comes to writing ballot measures, as they’ve done time and time again. That means that water bond negotiations — which are expected to produce a smaller and refocused borrowing plan to boost water resources — can continue for weeks, much to the frustration of elections officials who would have to scramble to print voter guides, ballots and more.

(In 2011, some noodling over the drop-dead date for lawmakers to create a tax ballot measure seemed to suggest 88 days may be the practical bare minimum — which would give water bond talks until early August.)

Several much-talked-about initiatives look to have fizzled out, at least for 2014, including talk of a marijuana legalization initiative and a unique proposal to split California into six separate states. The reasons for those measures missing the mark are many; and keep in mind that in some cases it might be purely tactical, as the November 2016 election — a presidential election — is expected to have a much larger turnout than the gubernatorial election that will be held in a little more than four months.

There’s also a chance of other proposals coming from the Legislature before it adjourns just before Labor Day. Notably, that could include a constitutional amendment to allow for the suspension of legislators without pay, an idea born out of the recent Capitol corruption allegations. And there’s a potential $9 billion school bond being considered by the Legislature, an idea that’s received bipartisan support so far.

Those measures would mean 2014 wouldn’t break a record for fewest propositions. Still, it’s shaping up to be a very lean year for voters to write laws — something Californians have done an awful lot of over the last century.

This post has been updated to reflect the existence of a proposed November statewide school bond, which is now being considered by legislators.

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About the Author ()

John Myers is senior editor of KQED's new 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. In 2014, he was named one of the nation's top statehouse reporters by The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @johnmyers. Reach John Myers at jmyers@kqed.org.

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