California Ballot Measures

Since 1911, California has allowed ordinary citizens to create statutory and constitutional law via initiatives, referenda, and recall elections, in addition to the previously existing mechanism for popular voting on initiatives sponsored by the Legislature. This guide will point you to major sources for researching the text, status, legislative history, electoral results, and post-election disposition of such measures.


Before beginning research on ballot initiatives, you should have a basic understanding of the types of propositions that may appear on a ballot and processes involved with each. For further information on initiatives, referenda and recall elections:

  • Daniel W. Martin, Henke’s California Law Guide 141-48 (8th ed. 2008)
    location & availability in print: KFC74 .H46 2006
  • L. Tobe Liebert, Researching California Ballot Measures, 90 Law Libr. J. 27 (1998):
    location & availability in print: KB1 .L415 LLJ
    Online version via Hein Online (on-campus or proxy server access required)

Legislative Initiatives

Prior to 1911, only the Legislature could place an initiative on the ballot for direct voting by the electorate, and this mechanism is still in use, most commonly for bond measures. Propositions relating to one of three topics can be placed on the ballot by the Legislature:

  • a constitutional amendment or revision (under Cal. Const. art. 17, § 1)—must pass by a two-thirds majority in both houses
  • a bond proposal creating debt greater than $300,000 (under Cal. Const. art. 16, § 1)—must pass by a simple majority in both houses and must be signed by the Governor
  • an amendment or repealer affecting any law that was established by the initiative process (under Cal. Const. art. 2, § 10(c))—must pass by a simple majority in both houses and must be signed by the Governor

A statute or constitutional change made via the above process does not become law unless approved by a majority of the electorate.

Direct and Indirect Initiatives

Direct initiatives are drafted and placed on the ballot by citizen-proponents. In brief, the process involves five basic pre-election steps for placing a citizen-sponsored proposition on the ballot:

  • Proponent submits proposition to the state Attorney General
  • AG’s office assigns title and official summary
  • Proponent circulates petition to have measure placed on ballot; Senate and Assembly committee(s) may conduct public hearings during this time, but may not make changes to proposition
  • Proponent files petition signatures with county elections officials to determine if the required number of valid signatures by registered voters (expressed as a percentage of voters casting ballots in the last gubernatorial race) have been collected to qualify for the ballot
  • For propositions that qualify, ballot pamphlet statements (including arguments, rebuttals, and a Legislative Analyst's Office statement on the purpose, effect, and fiscal impact of the proposition) are prepared, and joint legislative hearings are held

Litigation may occur at various points during the above process or may ensue post-election. For a more detailed description of the process and timelines for getting an initiative qualified to appear on a statewide ballot:
California Secretary of State, Department of Elections’ Initiative Guide

In addition, from 1911 to 1966, the indirect initiative process allowed citizens to ask the Legislature to place a measure on the ballot. After collecting sufficient signatures, a petition could be submitted to the Legislature to approve, reject, or amend and approve the measure; if the Legislature failed to act on the initiative within 40 days, the measure would be placed on the next ballot for direct vote by the electorate. For a brief description and history of indirect initiatives:
California Secretary of State's report, History of California Initiatives: December 2002 (PDF), at 3.

Referenda and Recall Elections

In brief, a referendum allows the electorate to veto a law enacted by the Legislature; however, emergency legislation, tax levies, and appropriations are not eligible to be challenged via referendum. Recall elections allow for removal from office of elected state or local officials. Like the process for citizen-sponsored initiative, both the referendum and recall processes require circulation of a petition, validation of a minimum number of petition signatures, followed by preparation of the ballot pamphlet for qualifying measures.

Text, Official Analyses and Arguments

Currently Pending Measures

Initiatives that are pending at any given time include those that have been submitted for title and summary, are being circulated in petition form, have been filed for petition signature verification, or are have qualified for preparation of ballot pamphlet statements. Two places to check for measures that are currently in any of these stages are:

  • California Secretary of State, Department of Elections' Ballot Measure Update page
  • California Office of the Attorney General's Initiative Measures Active list: propositions currently pending action by the AG's office or currently circulating in petition form (short title, official title and summary where available, status and date of last major action, full text in PDF)

Past Qualified Measures

For citizen initiatives, legislative initiatives, and referendum or recall measures that qualified to appear on the ballot, the official title and summary, official analysis, voter arguments, and full text of the measure will be found in the voter information guide (ballot pamphlet) issued by the Secretary of State. Occasionally, due to last-minute developments, a supplemental guide may supersede information about a proposition or may add new propositions; so be sure to check for supplemental pamphlets affecting your proposition. The following sources provide full text of past pamphlets and supplemental guides—

  • !!See Service Update for current status of this database!! UC Hastings Law Library's California Ballot Propositions Database (1911-2000s, limited information for 2001-2004): searchable database with full text of propositions, accompanying material contained in the ballot pamphlets, and related legal and legislative history. 
  • UC Hastings Law Library also offers digital images (1911-current) of the ballot pamphlets.
  • California Secretary of State, Department of Elections' Voter Information Guides archive (1996- ): full text (in HTML format, with some text of proposed law sections as PDFs) of the title and summary, analyses, arguments, and text of proposed laws appearing in the ballot pamphlet.
  • Los Angeles County Law Library's California Ballot Propositions page (1980- ): gives the official title, a summary ("nearly word for word as it appeared in the ballot pamphlet"), and election result, with links to the corresponding ballot pamphlets on the Department of Elections' site for more recent elections. This site appears to be unique in that it shows what statutes or constitutional provisions were affected by the proposition (including propositions that did not pass).
  • 1883-1998: Voters’ Arguments: California Ballot Pamphlet [microfiche]
    location & availability in print: KFC711 .A832
  • 1912-1972: Amendments to Constitution and Proposed Statutes
    location & availability in print: KFC710 .A82
  • 1974-2000: California Ballot Pamphlet: Primary Election
    location & availability in print: KFC715 .A83 [1974-78] and KFC715 .A83 [1980-2000]
  • 1982-2000, except 1986 (missing): California Ballot Pamphlet: General Election
    location & availability in print: KFC711 .A83 [1974-78] and KFC711 .A83 [1980-2000]

Failed or Withdrawn Measures

For text of propositions that were initiated but which did not wind up on the ballot, either because the petition failed to gain enough signatures or because the proposition was withdrawn, try:

  • !!See Service Update for current status of this database!! UC Hastings Law Library's California Ballot Initiatives Database (1911-2000): searchable database that includes failed or withdrawn initiatives, many with full text (PDFs) of the propositions and/or material relating to filing and qualification. 
  • California Secretary of State, Department of Elections' Ballot Measure Update (1999- ): this page focuses on currently pending measures, but the dates under the heading "Past Updates" (near the top of the page) allow you to hopscotch back through prior versions of the update page (going back to October 1, 1999), where you will find full text (PDFs) of some initiative measures, and official titles and/or summaries of previously withdrawn or failed initiative measures
  • California Attorney General’s Initiative Measures "Inactive" list (2004- ): propositions that were withdrawn, failed to qualify for ballot, or rejected by voters (gives short title, official title and summary where available, disposition and date; some full text available)

Statistical Information on Past Elections


The Secretary of State has occasionally issued a report listing all citizen-sponsored initiatives, including measures that were withdrawn or failed to qualify, since 1912. This report includes vote percentages (but only for those propositions that were approved), and also contains other summary statistical tables. The latest (and therefore most complete) version of the Secretary of State's initiative statistics report is available online:
History of California Initiatives: December 2002 (PDF).

Several prior versions of the above report—containing generally the same categories of information as in the 2002 version—are also available in print at various libraries on campus, under the previous report title, A History of the California Initiative Process:

  • March Fong Eu, A History of the California Initiative Process (1979)
    KFC708 .A87 1979 (Doe/Moffitt Library)*
  • March Fong Eu, A History of the California Initiative Process (1985)
    86 01929 (IGS Library)*
  • March Fong Eu, A History of the California Initiative Process (1988)
    89 00049 (IGS Library)*
    90 01165 (IGS Library)*
    JF495.C24 E8 1989 (Doe/Moffitt Library)*
  • Secretary of State, A History of the California Initiative Process (1993)
    94 00803 (IGS Library)*
  • Bill Jones, A History of the California Initiative Process (1995)
    96 00364 (IGS Library)*
  • Bill Jones, A History of the California Initiative Process (1996)
    location & availability in print: KFC708 .H57 1996 (Stacks)
    97 00176 (IGS Library)*
  • Bill Jones, A History of the California Initiative Process (1998)
    KFC708 .H57 1998 (IGS Library)*
  • Bill Jones, A History of the California Initiative Process (2001)
    KFC708 .H57 2001 (IGS Library)*

* For availability and location, check OskiCat

Statistics specific to measures that failed to qualify for the ballot may be difficult or impossible to obtain. The Attorney General's site tracking failed initiatives does not list the numbers of signatures collected during the petition drive; county election offices (which are responsible for determining if enough petition signatures were collected) are obligated to preserve the petitions only until 8 months after the certification of results from the election in which the measure appeared (or was attempted to be placed) on the ballot. The county thereafter may destroy the records unless a lawsuit or governmental investigation is pending. See Cal. Elec. Code § 17,200. Moreover, as a "general rule," once the petitions are filed with county officials, they are not considered public records for purposes of public record requests (FOIA-type requests to state agencies). See Cal. Gov't Code § 6253.5.


Despite a recent uptick in use of this device (9 referenda filed in 2011 alone, compared to less than 15 per decade since inception, and only 1 or 2 per decade in the 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s and 90s), the history of referenda in California can still be summarized in less than five pages:

Legislative History Documents

. . . for Direct Initiatives and Recall Elections

Since the text of the measure originates with a citizen proponent, many of the documents ordinarily associated with legislative drafting will not be publicly available, and only the official arguments included in the ballot pamphlet will serve to show legislative intent. Similarly, recall elections typically leave no legislative history trail other than the official arguments in the ballot pamphlet. These can be found in the sources listed above in the section on Text, Analyses and Arguments.

For a discussion of the weight of ballot pamphlet arguments and other documents in determining the intent of citizen-sponsored initiative laws (including citations to major cases), consult Daniel W. Martin, Henke’s California Law Guide 153-57 (8th ed. 2008) (location & availability in print: KFC74 .H46 2006). Generally, legislative documents from the State Assembly regarding citizen-sponsored initiatives are not considered to show the intent of the electorate in approving the proposition. Such documents may nevertheless contain useful information. The documents to look for include:

  • committee hearings (or reports) held once the measure has been assigned a title and summary, while the petition is circulating;
  • joint legislative hearings required to be held (under Cal. Elec. Code § 9034) once a measure is qualified for the ballot; and
  • for at least the 1988-1998 elections, analyses by the Senate Office of Research examining each proposition that qualified for the ballot.

Check the Library’s guide on Finding California Legislative History for guidance on finding hearing transcripts and committee reports. The SOR analyses were once publicly available through the Senate web site but now appear to be available only in print; the Library has several editions, and others are also available through the California State Library. To find these, check Lawcat or the State Library's Main Catalog using the following keyword search: "analysis and ballot and proposition."

. . . for Legislative Initiatives and Referenda

The process for researching the pre-election history of legislative initiatives is the same as that for other legislation. You may find the Library’s guide on Finding California Legislative History helpful in this process. As that guide suggests, before diving into legislative history research, consider the role of legislative documents in determining legislative intent as relevant to statutory construction. See 58 California Jurisprudence 3d 520-47 (2004) (location & availability in print: KFC80 .C3 1972) (Statutes, §§ 115-27, "Factors Affecting the Determination of Legislative Intent").

Similarly, because referenda originate from an ordinary legislative enactment, in addition to the official ballot pamphlet arguments on a referendum, there may be traditional legislative history in the traditional sense that is relevant to your research. To find the citation information for the legislative action underlying the referendum, check the ballot pamphlet section called "Text of the Proposed Law"; in general, the opening paragraph should give the year and bill number as well as the chapter citation from the session laws (Statutes and Amendments to the Codes). Then follow the steps outlined in the research guide on Finding California Legislative History to find the legislative history (if any) of the original legislative action.

Case Law on Initiatives

Case law regarding statutes or constitutional provisions affected by ballot initiatives may be found using the usual methods of case research, including the notes of decisions annotations in either Deering's California Codes (location & availability in print: KFC30.5.D4) or West's Annotated California Codes (location & availability in print: KFC30.5). To find the annotations, of course, you will have to know the codified section number(s) of any laws affected or added by the proposition. This may be difficult to determine, since the code sections themselves and the indexes to the codes generally will not refer to the proposition number. Instead, try:

  • The language of the proposition itself (find by using the sources listed above in section on Text, Analyses and Arguments. Sometimes the proposition itself states what code section(s) will be changed. Note that re-numbering of code sections at any time after the proposition was approved may mean your proposition is no longer found at the same location; check the Historical Notes section of the annotated code version to see if it shows where your proposition has been renumbered or otherwise removed.
  • The Los Angeles County Law Library database (California Ballot Propositions) lists affected code and Constitution sections for propositions from 1980 to present. As noted above, re-numbering may affect the location.
  • You may be able to use key phrases (look for unique or unusual terms) from the language of the statute to search a Califonia Codes database. Note that changes to the language of the law at any time after the original proposition was approved may affect your search, so try a number of different keywords and phrases if needed. Available sources include:
    • Legislative Counsel's California Law site: free on the web; official current code, without annotations
    • FindLaw's California Codes search engine: no-fee commercial site; current code, without annotations.
    • LexisNexis Academic: Library subscription (on-campus or proxy server access required); current code, with annotations from Deering's California Codes.
    • Westlaw (database identifiers "CA-STANN08" for the 2008 version, "CA-STANN07" for 2007, etc., going back to 1987): individual subscription (password required); current and some historic versions of codes, with annotations.
    • Lexis (Legal > States Legal - U.S. > California > Find Statutes, Regulations, Administrative Materials & Court Rules > By Statutes & Regulations > Legislative Archive, annual going back to 1991): individual subscription (password required); current and some historic versions of codes, with annotations.

In addition, for case law regarding litigation about the initiative process itself, including challenges to particular initiative measures, consult the case notes annotations to the provisions creating and governing the ballot proposition processes:

  • Cal. Const. art. 2, § 8 (initiatives)
  • Cal. Const. art. 2, § 9 (referenda)
  • Cal. Elec. Code §§ 9000-9035 (initiatives)
  • Cal. Elec. Code §§ 9040-9096 (preparation sof ballot pamphlet)
  • Cal. Elec. Code §§ 11,000-11,386 (recall elections)

Finally, legal digests can serve as a subject index to state and federal court cases on California ballot measures:

  • West's California Digest (under the heading Statutes, keynumbers 301-27 (initiatives) and 341-67 (referenda))
    location & availability in print: KFC57 .W47
  • Digest of Official Reports (3d & 4th series) (under the heading Initiative and Referendum)
    location & availability in print: KFC47.1 .C3

Books & Articles on Initiatives

Legal encyclopedias can give a good overview of the constitutional and statutory framework of California initiatives, and provide citations to leading cases regarding the initiative process or challenges to initiative measures. Two major sources are:

  • 38 California Jurisprudence 3d 508-645 (2006) (Initiative and Referendum)
    location & availability in print: KFC80 .C3 1972
  • 7 B.E. Witkin, Summary of California Law 278-307 (10th ed. 2005) (Constitutional Law §§ 153-70)
    location & availability in print: KFC80 .W56 2005

For a selected, annotated list of books and articles focusing on California ballot measures:
Daniel W. Martin, Henke’s California Law Guide 170-75 (8th ed. 2008)
location & availability in print: KFC74 .H46 2006

You can find additional books by using the following subject headings to search LawCat or other library catalogs:

  • "Referendum -- California"
    • covers referenda, initiatives and recall elections
    • also look at subheadings such as "-- History"
  • "Initiative, Right of -- California"
  • "Direct democracy"

Local Elections and Initiative Law in Other States

Local Law

The California Secretary of state maintains an online list of county election officials for California's 58 counties, who may be contacted regarding the qualification and status of local initiatives. The Secretary of State also maintains some basic statistical reports on past local initiative measures, based on biannual reporting by counties (information currently available for 1997 to 2006) and municipalities (information currently available for 1995 to 2006):
Secretary of State, Department of Elections' Initiative Reports page.

For a brief overview and data on usage of the California initiative processes at the local level, try:
Tracy M. Gordon, The Local Initiative in California (2004)
location & availability in print: KFC708 .G67 2004

Research Guides

A 2007 issue of Legal Reference Services Quarterly was devoted to research guides on initiative and referendum law in 23 states: Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Idaho, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Washington, Wyoming. The issue also includes an overview article covering general strategies and resources, including suggested legal encyclopedia articles that summarize various states' laws in this area and suggested search terms for legal and news articles databases.

Legal Reference Services Quarterly, volume 26, issue 3/4, 2007
location & availability in print: KF240 .L452

Multi-State Surveys and Overviews

M. Dane Waters, Initiative and Referendum Almanac (covers all 50 states; gives short overview and statistics, and sets forth full text of pertinent statutes or constitutional provisions defining initiative or referendum processes; appendix chart lists all initiative measures appearing in any statewide ballot from 1904-2001, and many other statistics and trends)
location & availability in print: KF4881 .A4 2003

To find other books and articles about other states' initiative law, try Subject Compilations of State Law. This annotated bibliography, published annually since 1981, devotes a subject heading to “Initiatives and Referenda,” citing articles and other publications that survey state laws on this topic. The bibliography is available online or in print—

  • Hein Online's Subject Compilations of State Laws library (on-campus or proxy server access required): select the "Search" tab to search all annual volumes at once, or you can browse for the volume from a particular year to find articles published only during that period (there is usually little reason to browse only specific years)
  • Subject Compilations of State Laws
    location & availability in print: KF240 .F67

Last edited by I-Wei Wang, 18 September 2012