California’s Initiative System: The Voice of the People Co-Opted   
By Mike Polyakov on Oct 31, 2012

When the initiative process was first added to the State Constitution in 1911, it was intended to give the public a tool to directly alter California’s government structure to address perceived problems. These problems would have to be so significant that 8% of the number of voters in the previous governor’s election would sign an initiative petition to place a proposed solution on the ballot.  This threshold turned out to be surprisingly easy to meet.  Indeed, in 1914, just three years after the initiative process was adopted, 17 voter-placed initiatives appeared on the ballot.   

A century later, proposition battles have become incredibly expensive endeavors.  The 1998 ballot measures were the first to exceed $200 million together, but the following decade would see even more expensive elections.  Between 2000 and late May 2012, more than $1.8 billion was spent for and against propositions, of which 25% – $556 million – was spent on just the top five ballot measures.

In this report, we examine the races that attracted the most money and where that money originated. We analyzed spending data for ballot measures races occurring between 2000 through the end of May 2012. Though our high level discussion includes recent spending numbers on November 2012 proposition races, our detailed data analysis does not.  Our major findings are:

  • Among the ballot propositions that attracted spending, the average proposition attracted $13.5 million in support and opposition expenditures combined.
  • Propositions regarding industry taxes attracted the most spending. Just six industry tax propositions garnered $307 million in spending. Energy companies and several wealthy individuals spent $150 million for and against most expensive measure, Prop 87 (2006), an oil tax.
  • 185 donors each contributed at least $1.5 million to ballot measure committees, accounting for $1.4 billion of the $2.3 billion given (60%). Among these large contributions, $498 million came from corporations and other businesses, $336 million from unions and union-sponsored committees, $232 million from 41 individuals, and $43 million from generically named political committees.
  • Only 2.3% of all funds that went to ballot measure committees came in the form of donations less than $1,000.  Over 92% of all contributed funds came as donations of $10,000 or more.
  • The California Teachers Association (CTA) contributed the most to ballot measure committees ($142 million).  It also gave more broadly than other groups, spending at least $1 million each on 20 different propositions since 2000.  
  • 17% of all donated money came from outside of California.
  • While spending more in support of a measure than the opposition spends against it does not ensure success, spending sufficiently more against a measure than the support spends for it is very likely to defeat it.
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