Labor hits back on business-led California ballot measures

From CalMatters state Capitol reporter Sameea Kamal: 

It’s become a key part of the big business playbook: If an industry doesn’t like a California law, it uses the referendum process to try and overturn it

Already on the November 2024 ballot: the oil industry qualified a ballot measure to kill a law that bans new oil wells near schools and neighborhoods, and the fast-food industry qualified another to wipe out a law creating a council to regulate fast food wages

Those referenda can only qualify by getting enough signatures from voters, which some industries pay people to do. But as Culver City Assemblymember Isaac Bryan and environmental and labor groups pointed out Monday, the signature-gathering process can be rife with deception. 

At a virtual press conference, Bryan, chairperson of the Assembly elections committee, showed videos of paid signature gatherers purportedly giving incorrect information about the referenda to voters — in some cases, the exact opposite message of what the ballot measure would do. That’s why he introduced Assembly Bill 421, which seeks to bring more accountability and transparency into that process. 

The bill would require more disclosure into who is funding the effort, and a number of steps to help voters distinguish paid signature gathering, such as having petition circulators register with the Secretary of State’s office, undergo training and wear a badge with an ID number, and use different-colored paper from volunteer signature gatherers. To repeal a law within two years of enactment, the bill would also require that at least 10% of signatures be obtained by unpaid volunteers.

  • Assemblymember Bryan: “Blatantly dishonest tactics are being used to manipulate and mislead voters, putting more obstacles in the way of communities working to protect the environment, improve the health of our children, and give workers a fair shot.” 

But the Republican vice chairperson of the Assembly elections committee quickly tried to quash the bill. 

  • Assemblymember Tom Lackey of Palmdale, in a tweet: “This is a blatant attempt to disenfranchise Californians & help out partisan special interest backers. Why can’t #CALeg trust voters to make up their minds?”

The bill would also change the way that referendum questions are presented on the ballot. Currently, a “yes” vote is to uphold the law and a “no” vote is to repeal the law. But the bill’s backers say that leads to confusion, and under the new legislation, the meaning of “yes” and “no” votes would be reversed. 

As CalMatters’ Ben Christopher and Jeanne Kuang explain, even when referenda fail, they can still pay off for industries because the laws go on hold once the measures qualify

While the bill seeks to make changes to the direct democracy process, it wouldn’t alter language in the Constitution, so it wouldn’t need to be approved by voters, Bryan said.

Businesses are also trying to block legislation before it even gets through the Legislature. After a slowdown during the pandemic, money spent lobbying state officials rose in 2022 to $444 million, according to data from the Secretary of State’s office. 

The biggest spenders last year, as reported by The Sacramento Bee, are familiar: the Western States Petroleum Association, representing the oil industry, with $7.3 million, up from $4.4 million in 2021, and the International Franchise Association, representing the fast food industry, at $6.1 million, up from only $83,000 in 2021. 

In another effort to expand direct democracy, today state Sen. Monique Limón, a Santa Barbara Democrat, is promoting her Senate Bill 846 that aims to update, streamline and expand the state’s automatic voter registration system.

Currently, people who visit the DMV are asked if they’re a citizen and if they want to register to vote. These questions are usually prompted in the middle of a transaction, and about half decline due to impatience or confusion. Non-citizens are also put at risk if they answer incorrectly and are mistakenly registered to vote.

If Limón’s bill passes, however, verifying eligibility and registering voters will be automated based on documents the customer provided during their time at the DMV. By shifting responsibility more onto the DMV instead of individuals, proponents of the bill hope to register more Californians to vote, including people of color, previously incarcerated people, and other marginalized groups.

  • Alejandra Remírez-Zárate, policy director of O.C. Action: “Right now there are around 4.6 million Californians who are eligible, but are not registered to vote… A robust diversity of voices is essential to a healthy democracy. Ensuring that these eligible voters can participate in the process makes our democracy stronger, and makes the government more responsive to our communities.”

Opponents of the bill — which include ACLU California Action, the League of Women Voters of California and the California NALEO Educational Fund — doubt these methods will produce higher registration rates. They say the state should instead extend automatic voter registration services to other programs. 

  • In a coalition letter to the Senate elections committee: “Thoughtfully and carefully extending the AVR model currently in use at California’s DMV to other social services points-of-contact — such as applications for health coverage through Covered California — has the potential to bring voter registration to additional groups of under-represented Californians, including low-income voters who may be less likely to interact with the DMV.”

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