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California's Direct Democracy

The United States has a representative democracy. This means citizens vote for people to represent, or speak for, them. California has a representative democracy, too. Californians vote for their governor, senators, and representatives. These elected officials create, uphold, and interpret California laws. In our democracy, people agree to follow the laws, even if the person they vote for doesn't win the election.

California's voters can also help make laws by creating ballot propositions. Propositions are ideas citizens have for new laws or changes to the Constitution. Voting on whether or not to make a new law is direct democracy.

History of Propositions

The system of direct democracy in California started in the early 1900s, when many Californians were unhappy with their state's government. Wealthy railroad owners controlled the governor and other state officials. The officials made laws to help businesses instead of the people they represented.

In 1911, citizens in California changed the state constitution so that voters could help make laws. They created a system of initiatives and referendums. An initiative is a proposal for a new law. If enough citizens sign a petition, or written request, these proposals become propositions and they are added to a ballot. Citizens vote on whether they want propositions to become laws. Another form of direct democracy in California is the referendum. A referendum allows citizens to vote for or against a law that the state assembly has passed.

Any California citizen can write a petition to propose a new law. If enough people sign the petition, the government must put the proposition on the ballot and let citizens vote. If enough people vote for the proposition, it becomes a law in the same way the legislature creates new laws. Currently, it takes more than 900,000 signatures to bring an initiative or a referendum before the voters. That is a tough obstacle to overcome. Even so, the number of these propositions has soared in recent years.

Too Many Questions?

Some people think there are too many initiatives and referendums in California today. To make good decisions, voters need to learn about each issue. This can be hard when there are so many initiatives on the ballot. “Democracy in California is on overload,” said the Fresno Bee newspaper.

Many voters like direct democracy, however. Elizabeth Garrett, a law professor at the University of Southern California, says the voters feel better about laws that they pass themselves. People prefer to make changes directly, she says, “rather than hoping that lawmakers, who have an interest in the process, will reform [change] themselves.”