Assembly Bill 1451 is an attack on direct democracy

By Jon Coupal and Martin Wilson | The tools of direct democracy — initiative, referendum and recall — are a powerful check against intransigent or corrupt politicians. These powers are enshrined in the California Constitution for reasons that are just as compelling in 2019 as they were in 1911. That’s when Governor Hiram Johnson, seeking to constrain the absolute control the railroads had over the state Capitol, pushed to give ordinary citizens a “legislative battering ram” — using the language of the Supreme Court — to address issues that for whatever reason the legislature refuses to address.

Political elites abhor direct democracy. From their perspective it allows the great unwashed and unsophisticated to deal with matters such as taxation, victims’ rights, insurance and most importantly political reform. These are issues over which politicians strongly desire to exercise a legislative monopoly. The latest assault on Californians’ rights to initiative and referendum is Assembly Bill 1451, introduced by Asm. Evan Low, D-Campbell, which has already cleared both houses of the California Legislature. Gov. Newsom should veto it.

AB1451 erects roadblocks to initiative qualification by requiring that at least ten percent of the petition signatures come from unpaid sources and also by banning paid signature gathering on a per-signature basis. While backers claim that this will reduce fraud, this justification doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

According to the Secretary of State’s Election Fraud Investigation Unit, between 1994 and 2010, the EFIU opened 240 cases for falsifying petitions, of which 46 were sent to district attorneys for prosecution, resulting in less than 35 convictions. During that same timeframe, over 100 initiatives were placed on the ballot requiring tens of millions of signatures.

Supporters also argue that eliminating paid-per-signature gathering and moving to compensation based on an hourly rate will help decrease money in politics. The opposite is true. By removing the financial incentive to collect signatures in the most efficient manner possible, the initiative process will further be skewed to special interests.

AB1451 will also lead to a flood of litigation. The bill states that any elector can file a civil action invalidating signatures if the signature gatherer intentionally misrepresents the legal effect of the petition. The last thing the California courts need now is unlimited numbers of “he said, she said” lawsuits.

Over and above all the flawed policies reflected in AB1451, its probable unconstitutionality gives Gov. Newsom an easy justification to veto the bill. The United States Supreme Court has long upheld paid signature gathering as being constitutional. Further, laws like AB1451 to ban paid-per-signature gathering have been struck down in at least six states.

While the tools of direct democracy aren’t perfect, the process has been substantially improved in recent years. For example, in 2014 organizations from across the political spectrum participated in a comprehensive, non-partisan effort which resulted in a new law authored by Sen. Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento.

Senate Bill 1253 brought greater accountability and transparency to the initiative process and, unlike AB1451, was the product of cooperation and compromise. AB1451 is a blunt instrument wielded by narrow special interests hell bent on making initiatives as difficult as possible. AB1451 is now on the governor’s desk. Jerry Brown, vetoed bills similar to this at least three times over his eight years. We encourage Gov. Newsom to do the same.

Jon Coupal is the president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association. Martin Wilson is the executive vice president for public affairs at the California Chamber of Commerce.