A new law in California requires that votes on ballot measures now take place in a general election, a move some believe will boost environment-friendly causes.
Gov. Jerry Brown (D) on Friday signed S.B. 202 from Sen. Loni Hancock (D), which mandates the November votes. It eliminates for the first time in 40 years the option initiative backers have had of timing their measures to land on the primary ballot.
"There are dramatically more voters at a general rather than a primary election," Brown said in a signing statement. "The idea of direct democracy is to involve as many voters as possible. This bill accomplishes that objective."
California since the 1970s has allowed initiatives and referendums to go on either the primary or general election ballot, based on when voter signatures are collected and submitted to the secretary of State. The new law "restores the original understanding of constitutional law that initiatives were to be considered at a general election," Brown also said in his signing statement.
In addition to gaining the widest votes, however, the impact of the new mandate might be to push initiatives to a more liberal-tilting voting group, some political observers said.
There are 7.6 million registered Democrats versus 5.3 million registered Republicans in California. There are also 3.5 million independent voters. In any election involving all registered voters, Democrats have the edge, said Steve Maviglio, principal of Forza Communications, a Sacramento-based public affairs and campaign firm.
"Democrats have a 12-point party registration advantage," Maviglio said. "Democratic turnout swells in November. Any measure that appeals to this electorate will fare better in November than it would have in June."
There is debate over how directly that Democratic leverage will translate to a win for green causes or a loss for opponents of environmental regulation. But the impact will play out in a state where initiatives are a major part of lawmaking.
Californians through the initiative process have legalized medical marijuana. They have outlawed confining some farm animals in ways that does not allow them to turn around, lie down, stand up and fully extend their limbs. They have approved $10 billion in bonds for high-speed rail and rejected an effort to suspend the state's climate law.
California League of Conservation Voters welcomed the new general election requirement.
"When we have bigger voter turnout, we get more people voting for the environment, because Californians by and large support clean energy, clean water, clean air," said Rebecca Saltzman, spokeswoman for the California League of Conservation Voters. "The more people we get out voting, the bigger margins we're going to get."
Proposition 23, the measure that would have suspended the state's sweeping climate law, A.B. 32, failed to pass in last November's general election, Saltzman noted.
"That's part of the reason we were able to defeat it with such a big margin," Saltzman said. "More voter turnout does tend to help our issue." Voters rejected Prop 23 by a more than 23 percent margin.
But others questioned how much the timing of elections ultimately affects votes.
Prop 16, which utility Pacific Gas & Electric Co. (PG&E) spent $46 million to push, would have required local governments to get a two-thirds vote before forming their own power authorities. Critics charged it was an effort to block public power. That initiative was on the state's June 2010 primary ballot. It failed, 52.5 percent to 47.5 percent.
"PG&E spent [nearly] $50 million to try and get passed in a low-key election," said Jim Metropulos, senior advocate with Sierra Club California. "We were able to defeat it on a shoestring. We didn't have $100,000. So it just depends on what the issue is.
"I am not in the position to say whether June or November favor environmental protection," Metropulos added. "You go back" and look at the results, he said, "and it's a crapshoot."
In addition to rejecting the climate law suspension measure last November, Californians defeated an initiative that would have added $18 to license plate fees to fund state parks that are threatened with closure. They also rejected legalizing marijuana for recreational use.
In the 2008 general election, Golden State voters approved the high-speed rail measure. But they turned down Prop 7, which would have required the state's utilities to generate half of their power from renewable sources by 2025. That measure failed, with 64.4 percent voting against and 35.6 percent voting in favor.
In that same election, voters also rejected Prop 10, a measure that would have authorized $5 billion in bonds to pay for various alternative energy incentives. The largest portion of that money would have gone in payments to purchasers of certain high mileage and alternative fuel vehicles. The measure was funded by natural gas companies Chesapeake Energy Corp. and Clean Energy Fuels Corp.
In November 2006, California voters turned down Prop 87, a measure that would have taxed petroleum producers and put the money toward alternative energy.
In a primary election in March 2002, Golden State voters approved $2.6 billion in bonds for development, restoration and acquisition of parks and for land, air and water conservation programs.
Some political observers said the greatest impact of the new law could be in the state's upcoming primary election, but not on any measure affecting the environment or energy.
The new general election mandate might be directed at a proposition that was headed for the Republican primary this June. Known as "paycheck protection," the measure would require that unions get an affirmative vote of members before they could use dues for political purposes. Currently those dues can be used on campaigns unless a member objects.
"This was just a way of pushing [paycheck protection] toward the more friendly electorate," said a political analyst who asked not to be identified because his employer did not take an official position on the general election issue.
The lower turnout of a primary election tends to favor more conservative causes, the political analyst said, but that has been one of several factors people take into account when deciding whether to fund ballot measures.
The Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association saw Brown's signature on the bill as an effort to delay a vote on the paycheck protection measure.
"By signing the government employee unions-backed bill to move ballot measures to the general election ballot next year ... Jerry Brown leaves no doubt as to who calls the tune," Jarvis said. "The governor is the creature of the unions representing the highest-compensated state workers in the nation, and when they say 'Jump,' he says, 'How high?'"