A Winning Moment for Democracy: California Reforms Referendum Process
by Greenpeace USA
California Assembly Bill 421, signed into law by Governor Gavin Newsom, brings clearer voting language and greater transparency at the ballot box.
Thanks to thousands of Californians demanding that legislators give power back to the people, on September 8, 2023, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed into law AB 421, a bill by Assemblymember Isaac Bryan (D-Los Angeles) that will increase transparency and change the way referendum questions are phrased on election ballots.
This might sound trivial but it is incredibly important, because when it comes to a referendum, “yes” doesn’t mean “yes” in the usual way. For example, a ballot initiative — a tool to propose a new law — a “yes” vote means “Yes, I like this idea. Let’s do it”. But for referendums — ballot measures that ask voters to overturn a law, a “yes” vote means the opposite — it rejects the request to repeal a specific law and “no” supports the repeal. It’s counterintuitive and a substantial percentage of Californians have reported being confused by these “yes” or “no” options. AB 421 has ensured California ballots will now request voters choose between “keep the law” and “overturn the law.”
AB 421 not only will make ballots much clearer, allowing Californians to cast their vote confidently, but it also injects much needed transparency around who is leading and stands to benefit from specific referendums. Now the top financial donors of a referendum will be required to be disclosed to voters, arming voters with the knowledge of which interests will be served by overturning or keeping a law. AB 421 also adds a new previously unavailable option — a referendum can now be withdrawn from the ballot up to 131 days before the election at the proponents request.
Greenpeace USA prioritized getting AB 421 into law because earlier this year the oil industry poured $20 million into a referendum campaign to delay and try to overturn SB 1137 — a law signed in 2022 that enacted a public health buffer zone between homes and toxic oil wells. Greenpeace USA worked for years alongside environmental justice communities to secure this win that will allow almost 3 million Californians, mostly from Black, Latinex, Indigenous, immigrant, and working class communities, to breathe easier and have a healthier future.
Labor allies lead the work on AB 421 after they also faced a referendum of a critical law passed in 2022 that would have given fast food workers more say over their pay and working conditions. It cannot be overstated how this victory is thanks to thousands of individuals, communities, and coalitions saying no more to big corporations’ attempts to hijack democracy and take advantage of a broken referendum system. Greenpeace USA was proud to join Service Employees International Union (SEIU) in California along with an incredibly diverse coalition of labor, environmental and justice organizations to pass this law.>