Want to Get a Measure on the Ballot? This Is How You Do It

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The Bay’s How To newsletter series (sign up here) is an extension of By the People episodes that look into how democracy functions in the spaces around us — and where, exactly, each of us can plug in. These features include changemakers who have learned how to get involved locally and now are sharing their step-by-step guides.

A graphic with a picture of Sandra Celedon called "How to Get a Measure on the Ballot."

If running for office isn’t your thing, maybe working with your neighbors to change a local issue is.

Let’s say you want to propose a new law for the state of California or your own city or county. You can, through the ballot!

And if lawmakers pass something you are not in favor of, guess what? You can start a process to revoke it.

Only 24 states offer residents the chance to submit statewide ballot measure initiatives, and California is one of them. Ballot measures propose new laws that can apply to cities and/or counties or to the entire state (then called propositions). Both need to be voted on and are included in voting ballots alongside the candidates running for office.

Ballot measures allow California voters to make new laws, change or repeal existing laws, change the state constitution, or approve a bond measure, without having to rely on lawmakers to do so. As a matter of fact, the 2021 recall election against Gov. Gavin Newsom is partly the result of a voter initiative.

The California secretary of state has compiled an extensive guide on how to navigate the bureaucracy and paperwork when organizing to get a measure on the state ballot.

A graphic titled "Steps for an initiative to become law" with 6 steps available at Rob Bonta's Ballot Initiative website.

If you want to make a change in your city or county, getting a measure on a local ballot is also an option in California and that can happen through one of two paths:

  1. Direct: You collect the needed signatures and your initiative goes straight to the ballot.
  2. Indirect: You submit your initiative and it goes to a legislative body (like a city council), which then votes on it.

Where you live determines the rules you have to follow to successfully submit a ballot measure. It’s important to know the procedures and timeline because it can be an intricate and lengthy process.

For starters, many cities in California, like San Francisco, Oakland, Sacramento, San José and Fresno, are “charter cities.” This means that they each have their own process for getting a measure on their local ballots.

If you live in a charter city and want to know what the process is like, you can call the city directly (reach out to the city clerk) and ask for what their process looks like, or you can check their website (here’s an example from San Francisco).

If you don’t live in a charter city, you should still contact your city clerk, who should walk you through the next steps. Your ballot initiative will eventually go to a legislative body (like your city council), who then can do one of three things:

  1. Pass your ballot initiative without having to put it on a ballot for voter approval.
  2. Approve the ballot initiative to be placed on the ballot for approval.
  3. Ask for a report on the impact of the initiative, although that is rare.

Sandra Celedon and Fresno for Parks are an example of a successful local community- and youth-led ballot initiative. Celedon was part of the group that identified a community issue, gathered signatures and wrote Measure P aimed to provide clean, safe neighborhood parks, trails and recreational and art programs throughout Fresno back in 2018.

“Taking issues to the ballot is the pinnacle of people-led movements,” Celedon told KQED. While there were ups and downs, Measure P passed and Celedon shared her tips with us:

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1. Get community and data to inform your issue

Make sure issues connect to your community’s concerns and priorities. Even if they seem important to you, it may not be for your neighbors.

When Celedon began organizing back in 2017, some advocates believed housing was the most pressing issue to address. But when they hosted a town hall that 300 people showed up to, some young people asked Celedon why they weren’t focusing on parks.

Celedon asked why they should, and one young person said, “Well, they suck! They don’t have any working bathrooms, there’s no grass, there’s no activities, and there aren’t any nearby."

Celedon called it a “gut check and humility point.”

The bottom line for Celedon and her team was to make long-lasting change in response to the concerns and priorities the community was highlighting. It is essential to take the time to hear what the community wants and needs, and to be flexible enough to shift priorities to meet those needs.

The group quickly got to work and surveyed young people in the community to see if they also thought parks were an issue worth focusing on. Turns out they did.

“They understood how parks connected to land use, neighborhoods, wellness and all of the things that we now take as fact,“ says Celedon.

At this point, Celedon and advocates didn’t really know about issues facing parks, like the complexities of land use and development in Fresno. So research had to be done.

Celedon suggests looking at public city documents, like budgets, and comparing them to other cities. Research national organizations that conduct annual studies and compile statistics on your issue. All of the information that organizers were learning was then shared back with the community.

“We hosted huge community meetings of 300 to 400 people — at one point 900 — to just really break it down,” says Celedon. “We said, ‘Here's what we understand. What do others understand? What do we want to learn more about?’ And then we started to bring in other experts to confirm we understood what was happening with land use and development in Fresno.”

It’s also important to continuously survey your community. “We had been running citywide voter surveys every year,” Celedon says. “We were just calling folks and asking, ‘Why do you care about parks? Would you be willing to pay more for parks?’”

These surveys, plus door-to-door canvassing, allowed the coalition to build relationships with residents, obtain more than 35,000 signatures and set the foundation for funding.

Note: Certain local bond and tax measures require approval by a 55% or a two-thirds vote of the electorate. A statewide ballot measure can be approved by a majority vote of the people. Unless a city charter specifies anything different, 10% of registered voters are needed to pass a measure (not bond or tax), but check your county or city laws for the required percentage of votes it needs to pass.

A graphic titled "Get Community & Data to Inform Your Issue," with 4 steps that are covered in the article.

2. Launch your campaign

Once you’ve identified the issue your community cares about and have the data to prove why it’s important, it’s time to increase the public's awareness.

Fresno for Parks decided to do a communication campaign using city bus ads to highlight the statistics they discovered through their research. When the ads were being placed on buses, an employee notified them they weren’t going to run the ads, claiming they were too political.

“That was the biggest gift the city could have given us because it actually got us tons of free media,” says Celedon.

At press conferences, the coalition shared more data like the fact that the parks budget makes up 4% of general fund spending, while police make up about half.

3. Get that money!

Everything takes money. You will need to explain how your proposed measure will be funded if it’s passed into law. So, it's helpful to know off the bat whether voters are willing to see their tax money used to support their proposal.

For Fresno for Parks, their annual surveys informed them early on that they had the financial support of residents. They also asked for help from The Trust for Public Land, a national organization that provides annual park scores. They conducted a study to find out all the ways parks can be funded and how other communities were doing it.

Ultimately, Measure P’s funding source was a 3/8-cent city sales tax — a sales tax increase smaller than 1 cent per purchase — that ensured visitors and non-Fresno residents also paid.

Another thing that costs money is the campaign in favor of the measure itself, plus any potential legal fees.

Under federal law, support for ballot measures is considered a form of direct lobbying, and such support may take many forms. Fresno for Parks got money from the nonprofit Central Valley Community Foundation, which had just received an endowment specifically for parks.

According to the IRS, under what’s called the expenditure test, an organization's tax-exempt status will not be jeopardized if the amount does not exceed a specific amount. This amount usually depends on the size of the organization.

These are just some examples highlighting the financial needs and costs of an initiative. It is by no means a comprehensive list, but rather a reality to consider for this process.

4. No losses, only setbacks

The process may be arduous and slow, but Celedon says you have to stay committed. Measure P faced a lot of opposition from prominent city officials. The “Vote No On Measure P” campaign was backed by Fresno’s former mayor, police chief, and fire chief and the Fresno Chamber of Commerce.

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In the 2018 local elections, Measure P received about 52% of the yes vote after votes were certified. But the city of Fresno argued that the ballot measure needed a two-thirds majority to pass, not a simple majority.

The dispute carried on until December 2020 — more than two years after the election — when California’s Fifth District Court of Appeal overturned the opinion of a lower court. Ultimately, Measure P passed thanks to that successful appeal, and since then the city has approved a Parks, Recreation, and Arts Commission to oversee Measure P expenditures. The commission is currently accepting project proposals for parks, trails and arts.

You can follow Fresno for Parks on Twitter to see how they are ensuring the proper planning, budgeting and projects made possible by Measure P.

Search for information about the local ballot measures on the recent November 2020 ballot in California.

A chart reads "Tips on Getting a Measure on the Ballot" with 4 categories, which are covered in the article.


Isabeth Mendoza is the engagement producer for The Bay, a podcast that explores local news every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. We launched a newsletter and episode series called By the People shortly after Election Day in the U.S. in 2020. The purpose of the series was to look into how democracy functions in the spaces around us, and by extension the newsletter continued the conversation focusing on how to plug in. We looked at how to run for office, how to use digital spaces for advocacy and how to get a measure on a ballot. If any of these spark your curiosity, keep reading because we break it down for you in simple how-to guides.

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