The California Constitution guarantees that when deciding fundamental questions, including amending itself in harmony with “one person one vote,” the majority opinion of voters shall prevail. This ensures a fair democratic process with outcomes that should be accepted by all.
But this process has faced challenges from special interest groups seeking to change the rules from time to time in California, and likely would into our future.
By using our own Constitution, our guiding document, past efforts have sought to use a majority-vote outcome to enshrine a two-thirds vote threshold test on future questions. Success would mean all future measures would be subject to the veto of a minority, not the decision of the majority.
Usually, this has come up in attempts to strangle proposals for revenue questions — making it much harder for local communities to have resources for critical infrastructure and public services. This is revenue that is used to fund schools, keep communities safe, address homelessness, and more.
Those few behind these measures are hoping California voters will allow them to create a big enough loophole in our state Constitution to allow them to avoid paying their fair share — all under the guise of “protecting taxpayers.”
The same strategy could be used to attack reproductive rights, as Ohio voters recently faced and rightfully rejected in Measure 1, or pro-housing policies in our own state. Whatever the subject, some want to raise the bar for passage without getting the same level of support from voters themselves. This is inherently imbalanced and undemocratic.
I introduced the Protect and Retain the Majority Vote Act (ACA 13) to ensure a simple majority vote remains the threshold for a measure to pass, while also requiring any statewide initiative seeking to increase a vote threshold to also be approved by the exact same proportion of voters. For example, if a measure wants to lock in a two-thirds supermajority vote threshold, it should also have the support of two-thirds of voters. What’s fair is fair.
This isn’t unprecedented. In 1998, Oregon voters approved a similar measure which changed the Oregon Constitution to require “any measure that includes any proposed requirement for more than a majority of votes cast by the electorate” to only go into effect if is passes by the “same percentage of voters specified in the proposed amendment.” In 2004, City of San Diego voters did the same in their city charter.
Additionally, this has been tested in California courts before. In the 2017 case case of the California Cannabis Coalition vs. the City of Upland, the State Supreme Court ruled that “special” taxes may not be subject to a two-thirds vote if proposed by a citizens’ initiative. Challenges to this are not just trying to work around the will of voters, but would likely lead to costly litigation for local governments, leaving the taxpayers the measure is claiming to protect on the hook for the bill.
It should come as no surprise that many Californians are concerned about threats in the future. The coalition supporting ACA 13 includes nurses, firefighters, educators, and local government officials who are all concerned that taking away majority-vote proposals for communities could lead to major cuts to everything from emergency response, to mental health services, affordable housing projects, and more.
The opposition to ACA 13, however, is painting the Protect and Retain the Majority Vote Act as an attempt to thwart democracy. If they really want to find out who is threatening democracy, they should take a look in the mirror.
These are the same actors who, in 2018, used the threat of changing our Constitution’s vote thresholds to extract legislative action to ban a soda tax for 12 years. Not only was the measure itself undemocratic as argued above, its use to put a gun to the head of deliberative policymaking was abusive and highlights the power imbalance special interests like to create for themselves.
The Legislature should take a stand to protect the integrity of our Constitution, ensure fair outcomes, and send ACA 13 to the voters to let them have their say on the same matter.
Assemblymember Chris Ward, a San Diego Democrat, represents the 78th Assembly District. He is the assistant majority leader in the Assembly.