California Governor Jerry Brown has until October 9 to sign into law Senate Bill 202, which will require all statewide initiatives to be placed on November general election ballots, concurrent with either a presidential or gubernatorial election.
Although sponsored by Democrats, and clearly intended to ensure a larger proportion of the electorate turns out to vote on statutory and constitutional propositions, Gov. Brown should nevertheless approve the legislation on principled grounds. Historically, primary or special elections tend to favor the turnout of either a liberal or conservative electorate, depending on which offices are being contested, which party has an incumbent facing no internal party opposition, and which party has a contested party primary.
Between 1912 and 2010, Californians considered 1180 statewide ballot measures, including 342 ballot initiatives placed on the statewide ballot by petition efforts. Of these initiatives, 52 were on primary ballots, and eight were on of these special election ballots.
In 2010, roughly 10.3 million Californians voted in the general election; only 5.7 million voted in the June primary. Historically, these disparate turnout levels have persisted. Proponents of ballot measures know that different partisan electorates will participate in primary, special, and general elections, and they intentionally try to game the system by placing liberal or conservative initiatives on the ballot, depending on which candidate races are on the ballot.
As I argue in a co-authored Party Politics article a decade ago, entitled, “The Initiative to Party: Partisanship and Ballot Initiatives in California,” voting on ballot initiatives in California breaks along partisan lines.
If Californians are going to exercise self-governance, and determine essential and often divisive policy matters at the polls, shouldn’t a larger, more representative swath of voters be asked to decide them?