Making the most of the initiative process

In San Francisco, residents can enact laws through the initiative process in the form of a ballot measure. (Mira Laing/Special to S.F. Examiner)

This week’s question comes from PZ, who asks:

Q: “I discovered that San Francisco has deliberately put public health at risk for quite some time. I would like to put something on the ballot to address this issue. I have the following questions: 1. Can anyone, San Francisco resident or not, put something on the ballot? 2. How would I get started on this matter? 3. Is there any agency or group that can help me?”

A: I am glad to see you are interested in direct action as part of our democracy. Local laws may be made through the Board of Supervisors, which involves the board introducing an ordinance. An ordinance requires consideration at two separate meetings at least five days apart, a first reading and final passage by six of the 11 supervisors. Laws may be enacted is through the initiative process in the form of a ballot measure. Your question concerns the initiative process. A lawyer with expertise in elections procedures should be consulted in any effort to pass an initiative, as the requirements are both lengthy and exacting.

To pass a law through the initiative process, one must submit an initiative petition, with a $200 filing fee, to the Department of Elections. The initiative petition must be filed with a Notice of Intent to Circulate a Petition, the full text of the proposed measure and a request that the city attorney prepare a ballot title and summary of the proposed measure. The filing fee will be waived if submitted with a petition containing valid signatures of 400 registered San Francisco voters. However, additional signatures must be gathered to get the initiative on the ballot.

A charter amendment requires 10 percent of the total number of voters in the Department of Election’s most recent official report of registration to the Secretary of State. An ordinance or declaration of policy requires 5 percent of the votes cast for all candidates for mayor at the most recent municipal election. A proponent has 180 days from the date of receipt of the city attorney’s ballot title and summary to obtain signatures and file the petition. The notice and the ballot title and summary of the proposed measure must also be published in a newspaper of general circulation, like the San Francisco Examiner. The proponent must then gather signatures through a specific process.

If an initiative petition meets all legal requirements, contains sufficient valid signatures and is submitted within 180 days from receipt of ballot title and summary and at least 120 days prior to an election, the measure will qualify.

The proponent then must file numerous materials to be included in the Voter Information Pamphlet. The materials submitted for publication in the voter pamphlet are made available for public examination at the Department of Election’s office for 10 calendar days immediately following the filing deadline. During this 10-day period, any San Francisco voter may seek a writ of mandate or an injunction to amend or delete the material on the grounds that the material is false, misleading or inconsistent with the purposes of the Voter Information Pamphlet.

The director of elections then determines the title and letter designation of each measure, assigning letter designations according to the procedures set forth in the San Francisco Municipal Elections Code. No less than 85 days prior to the election, the city attorney prepares an impartial question or general statement that will be printed on the ballot and in the Voter Information Pamphlet. Within the same period, the controller prepares an impartial financial analysis of each measure that includes the amount of any increase or decrease in the cost of city and county government and the effect of the measure on the tax rate.

The Ballot Simplification Committee prepares a summary of each local ballot measure in simple language, written as close as possible to an eighth grade reading level. Each summary explains the main purposes and points of the measure including four sections: the way it is now, the proposal, what a “Yes” vote means and what a “No” vote means.

Proponents and opponents then have an opportunity to state their positions on the measure for inclusion in the voter pamphlet. Those arguments, if any, are submitted in favor of or against each measure. Generally, a simple majority is required to adopt a charter amendment, ordinance or declaration of policy.

The date for the commencement of the process for this election passed on Feb. 5, so you will have to either seek a special election or wait for the next regularly scheduled election.

Christopher B. Dolan is owner of the Dolan Law Firm. Email questions to

View Comments