Signing Your Life Away With California's Ballot Initiatives

By Kit-Bacon Gressitt


Outside your local grocery store, a fellow wearing a bedraggled Santa Claus hat stands by a folding table festooned with political slogans. As he fumbles five or six clipboards, you're thinking you wouldn't want him dating your daughter, and then he thrusts a clipboard into your path.

“Wanna sign this initiative petition to protect local voter control?” he asks. “Or how about stopping sexual predators? Or religious freedom — do you support religious freedom? Just sign here.”

DeadSoldiersReligious freedom is a little iffy these days, with all the folks who demand it for themselves while they condemn the rest of us to sizzle in hell. So you look a little closer and read that what the initiative would actually do is exempt Bible-based speech from California’s current hate speech restrictions. This means all those charmers from Kansas’ Westboro Baptist Church, who haunt military funerals and communities across the country with signs that read “Thank God for Dead Soldiers,” “God Hates Jews” and “God Hates Fags,” could incite violence in California with their epithets—sans repercussion.

“Well, now, that’s misleading,” you say, “and gross.” But the petitioner is busy pushing a clipboard at someone else.

So you take a look at the petition for stopping sexual predators. Those bastards sure need to be stopped—with extreme prejudice. Problem is, you start reading it and discover the sexual predator language is a front for the next in a long line of failed biennial attempts to force parental notification of abortion on pregnant teens and their healthcare providers.

“You know, you should be calling this what it is," you say, "a parental notification proposal.”

“Huh?” he replies.

You decide you wouldn’t even want him dating your worst enemy’s daughter. Nonetheless, you check out the local voter control initiative, because you suspect you and your fellow bucolic burg dwellers couldn’t do any worse than the state legislature. You ask the dullard how local control will be accomplished.

He says, “Uh, it’s complicated. Er, I don’t know, and I have to keep moving—I get paid by the signature.”

“If it’s such a good idea, can’t we get volunteers to collect signatures—Fallbrook volunteers from among Fallbrook voters?” you say. “And how can you represent something you don’t understand?”

Now you’re a little suspicious, so you ask who’s paying him to gather signatures, who’s funding the campaigns, and he says, “They don’t tell us that stuff.”

“Well, I have a right to know, don’t I?” you mutter as he ignores you to body block the next shopper before he makes it to the grocery store door.

And this is much of what’s wrong with California’s initiative process.

The grassroots citizen initiative was adopted in 1911 in response to the common perception that rail and land barons controlled the state legislature, neglecting the needs and will of the citizenry. The California Constitution defines the electors’ right to propose and vote on constitutional amendments or statutes, bypassing the state legislature and going directly to a vote of the people. “Direct democracy” it’s called, and though it’s a highly valued concept, it has degenerated to a big business that caters to moneyed special- and single-interest groups (often from outside of California). Such groups' proposals range from the cynically ridiculous to the ridiculously complex. In a recent interview, former State Senator Lucy Killea, who worked on an unsuccessful initiative reform effort while in office in the 1990s, explained why reform is so important.

“It’s become commercialized. You’re not getting people voting for an initiative because they want it or because they’re informed on the issue, but because there’s a young man at the grocery store with a whole list of things. Some of these people will have eight or nine different measures—some of them even opposing each other. It’s really too bad. It’s become a business for people; they treat it as a business. It’s the buying of votes.”

To Killea’s point, the examples reflected above are actual initiatives: the Local Voter Control and Government Accountability Act—enjoy reading its 10 pages of statutes; the Parental Notification, Child and Teen Safety, and Stop Predators Act, the introductory letter of which is signed by a John Smith without an address, a probable cover for Jim Holman, publisher of the San Diego Reader, who just can’t leave it alone; and the Religious Freedom Act, intended to “secure and perpetuate the blessings of Almighty God for the people of California.” You can read more about this initiative’s sponsors at

These initiatives are only three of a whopping 91 submitted to date to the California Attorney General’s Office for 2010 elections. Of the 91, four have qualified for the June or November 2010 ballots by acquiring the necessary number of valid signatures, four failed to qualify, three were withdrawn, 37 are in circulation, and the rest are pending.

In the meantime, those initiatives primarily funded by something other than grassroots supporters have incurred costs that are making money for members of the initiative campaign elite, commonly known as the “Initiative Industrial Complex”—political and campaign consultants, attorneys, voter list brokers, and firms that specialize in petition signature gathering, media, polling, public relations and direct mail. Most often, only those initiatives wrung through the complex actually make it to the ballot—the others don’t have the money to buy success.

But wouldn’t it be nice if success actually looked like volunteers, from California, who believe in the issues they’re promoting; independent judicial review of proposed initiativesto weed out the idiotic, hateful and deceitful measures; online petition signing, to cut out at least some of the Initiative Industrial Complex money grubbers; and full disclosure of initiatives’ sponsors and contributors.

RescueMarriage_120x240_button01Until that vision is achieved, beware what you sign.

Although, as luck would have it, there is an initiative-reform initiative coming to your grocery store soon, the “Grass Roots Initiative Reform Act.” But if that one’s too esoteric for you, you could always consider the 2010 California Marriage Protection Act. It’s not another Prop. 8 diatribe against same-sex marriage; it is writer John Marcotte’s satirical response to the proposition. He has jumped into the “protect marriage” revival tent by proposing to “safeguard marriage from the evils of divorce.”

Marcotte's campaign website is laugh-out-loud funny — but yet another scream for initiative reform.

Love, K-B

©2009 Kit-Bacon Gressitt

(Westboro Baptist Church image via a Creative Commons license. Marriage graphic courtesy of