Bills of 2023 | Newsom signs bill intended to clear up the ballot  

Election workers sort ballots at the Sacramento County voter registration and elections office in Sacramento on Nov. 8, 2022. Photo by Rahul Lal, CalMatters
Election workers sort ballots at the Sacramento County voter registration and elections office in Sacramento on Nov. 8, 2022. Photo by Rahul Lal, CalMatters
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Editor’s note: The Signal is presenting CalMatters’ wrap-up stories on some of the key bills that reached the governor’s desk at the close of the 2023 legislative session. Here’s the CalMatters summary of a bill that aims to clear up voter confusion. 

By Sameea Kamal  
CalMatters Writer  

Assembly Bill 421 started out as an ambitious reform of procedures for a state referendum, put on the ballot to repeal a law passed by the Legislature and signed by the governor. The original version introduced by Assemblymember Isaac Bryan, a Culver City Democrat, included more rules for signature gathering and other provisions designed to hit back at industry groups that are increasingly going to the ballot box to block laws they don’t like.  

But in its final form, the bill aims to reduce confusion for voters — sometimes created intentionally. This bill requires the ballot title and summary to be posed as a question for voters: “Keep the law” or “overturn the law?” That would be followed by a summary of the law. It would also require the measure’s top funders to be listed, and, starting in 2025, the names of top supporters and opponents.   

Who Supports It 

Unions and advocacy groups that fought for environmental and worker protection bills that industry groups are aiming to overturn through the referendum process: SEIU California, the California Teachers Association, the Northern California Recycling Association and the Center for Biological Diversity. The bill is also supported by the League of Women Voters of California and the Dolores Huerta Foundation.  

Who Is Opposed 

Industry groups including the Agricultural Council of California, California Association of Realtors and the California Manufacturers and Technology Association, as well as chamber of commerce groups from around the state.  

Why It Matters   

In 2022, California passed laws creating a task force to oversee wages in the fast food industry and to ban new oil wells near schools and homes. Industry groups qualified measures for the November 2024 ballot to kill the laws. Even if they lose, they at least delay their implementation.   

Also in 2022, voters in a referendum upheld a state ban on flavored tobacco. Would more direct ballot language make a difference in the outcome of these measures? It’s not clear.  

While the bill makes changes to the direct democracy process, it doesn’t change the state’s Constitution, so does not have to go to the voters.    

Another provision in the bill creates a process for proponents of a referendum to withdraw their measure from the ballot. It’s already being used in a deal between labor and the fast food industry to pull a measure off the November 2024 ballot.  

The Governor’s Call 

Gov. Gavin Newsom announced Sept. 8 he had signed the bill, without comment.  

Bryan did issue a statement: “A confusing referendum process has made it too easy for concentrated special interests to silence and manipulate the voice of voters in our communities, but with Governor Newsom’s signature on AB 421 we are putting power back in the hands of the people.” 

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