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Politics & Policy

New bill aims to reform corporate use of state’s referendum process

The California State Senate in Sacramento | Gina Ferazzi/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

A new state bill announced Monday would reform the process to qualify a statewide referendum for a ballot in an effort to prevent corporations and other campaigners from lying to voters.

Assembly Bill 421 would expand oversight by the Secretary of State’s Office of signature collection and referendum campaign funding and would require that unpaid volunteers collect at least 10% of a campaign’s signatures.

Referendum campaigns often utilize paid signature collectors, sometimes recruiting from other states. Under AB 421, paid signature canvassers would be required to register with the Secretary of State’s Office and would be given an identification number included on their petitions.

AB 421’s author, Assemblymember Isaac Bryan, D-Los Angeles, argued that some successful statewide referendum and ballot initiative campaigns in recent years have been bankrolled by corporations and business groups that have a vested interest in reversing a law that was properly passed and adopted by state lawmakers and the governor.

“There are 40 million people who are counting on their Legislature and their governor and their voice to be heard in the democratic process,” Bryan said Monday in a virtual briefing to announce the bill.

“You have communities that have been historically boxed out of this process who have found their voice through different statewide initiative processes,” he added. “Now we’re seeing those processes subverted and weaponized against those very same communities.”

The bill would also apply to ballot initiatives such as 2020’s Proposition 22, which overrode a 2019 law that required app-based companies to classify workers as employees rather than independent contractors, that indirectly roll back a state law within two years of that law’s adoption.

Activist groups like California Environmental Voters and labor unions like the state’s branch of the Service Employees International Union have already thrown their support behind the bill, arguing that corporate interests have used the referendum and initiative processes to roll back policies that support policies like workers’ rights and clean air and water.

“That’s why it’s scaring these corporations,” said SEIU California Executive Director Tia Orr. “That’s why we’re seeing the growing abuse of the referendum process because they no longer have absolute control over the levers of power in Sacramento.”

Bryan argued that while Gov. Gavin Newsom has in the past vetoed legislation that would reform the referendum and initiative process, the work of state lawmakers and Newsom himself has been undone via statewide referenda in a way that does not reflect voter sentiment.

Bryan also suggested that the referendum process has been abused against Newsom himself during the attempt to recall Newsom from office in 2021.

“There are some key structural changes we’re going to have to make to our democracy,” he said.

Polling from the firm David Binder Research found that a significant majority of likely 2024 voters across the state favor reforms of some kind to the referendum process, with 70% saying that ballot language is “purposely written” to confuse voters and 61% saying that the referendum process is abused by “wealthy special interests.”

In addition, 77% of voters polled supported a minimum number of collected signatures from unpaid volunteers.

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