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California counties are crashing on checking and sampling signatures before a Thursday deadline to qualify initiatives for the November ballot. The procrastination, er… late turn-in of a half-dozen measures has created uncertainty.

What’s also created uncertainty is this: there’s no real rule on how counties can count when they face multiple measures and short time limits. Do they count the stuff that comes in first? Or the measures that come with the most possible signatures? Or the initiative that seems more broadly important? It’s not clear. State law sets the deadlines for how quickly counties must count signatures, but not how they do so.

There are two things to be done here. The first is to give counties some clarity, perhaps legislatively. A suggested rule of thumb: the initiative whose backers are first to submit should be counted first.

The second is a broader reform that the state should look at, for many reasons. Changing the calendar governing initiatives. California’s time limit of five-months for gathering signatures is far too short, given the hundreds of thousands of signatures required. It would be better to give people far more time – I’d say at least a year – to reduce the cost and make it easier for grass-roots organizations to use the process.

The state also might consider conducting initiative votes on a separate calendar from candidate elections, easing the burden on counties and reducing the lengths of ballots. A separate calendar might have more frequent votes on initiatives, so there’s less of a rush to put a half-dozen or a dozen measures all on the same ballot.