Keith Osentoski


$1.1 billion: the amount of money spent on statewide direct democracy measures in California in just one year. This Note examines this extraordinary spending in light of the historical intent behind California's direct democracy system. Over a century ago, California voters amended the state’s constitution to create the initiative, referendum, and recall powers. The Progressive Era amendment was designed to root out corporate influences on, and corruption in, the state’s governance.

Two recent developments, however, show just how far California’s direct democracy system has strayed from its original intent. In the 2020 general election, special interests poured more than $785 million into twelve ballot measures. Of them, Proposition 22 became the most expensive initiative in California history, costing more than $224 million. The record-setting spending, led by Uber and Lyft, successfully delivered to gig economy companies a carved-out exemption from California’s employment classification law. And less than a year later, the failed recall attempt of Governor Gavin Newsom cost more than $345 million.

This Note uses these developments to scrutinize the Supreme Court jurisprudence that has allowed exorbitant spending to corrupt California’s direct democracy system. First, against the backdrop of those cases and protected corporate speech, this Note considers the history, intent, and framework of direct democracy in California. Next, this Note details Proposition 22 and the Newsom Recall to highlight in recent developments the issues that flow from unrestrained spending. Finally, this Note concludes that the Supreme Court should reexamine its jurisprudence and allow states to honor the intent of their direct democracy systems by enacting closely drawn contribution limitations to ballot measures and recalls. Left without this meaningful tool, California should consider increasing qualification thresholds or limiting its use of direct democracy to local issues, because the statewide system has been usurped by the very forces it sought to expel.