Blue-state California lawmakers also undermining democracy

Californians will face longer ballots next year as state lawmakers keep undermining democratic principles by putting their thumbs on the election scale.

The ballot explanations for costly state and local measures, which should be informative but neutral, continue to be turned into opportunities for political propaganda.

California’s attorneys general have often slanted the wording on statewide ballot measures. And for local spending measures, officials have abandoned plain language, often refusing even to identify taxes as taxes.

The ballot politicization is about to get worse. Starting next year, candidates for office can campaign on the ballot by affixing their names to support or opposition of state or local measures. And a pending bill would provide even more space for electoral puffery.

As liberal Californians express understandable outrage about red-state assaults on voting rights, they should also worry about more subtle, but similarly insidious, moves here to skew election outcomes.

Attorney general

For statewide measures, the attorney general has the constitutional responsibility to write the ballot titles and summaries. With the post held by Democrats for the past 24 years, they have too often used the power of the office to favor liberal measures and hurt conservative ones.

In 2018, for example, Xavier Becerra wrote the bold-faced, all-caps ballot title for Proposition 6 that said it “ELIMINATES CERTAIN ROAD REPAIR AND TRANSPORTATION FUNDING. REQUIRES CERTAIN FUEL TAXES AND VEHICLE FEES TO BE APPROVED BY THE ELECTORATE.” He relegated to the smaller-type summary the measure’s central purpose, repealing multi-billion-dollar gasoline-tax and automotive-fee increases just passed by the Legislature and governor.

The responsibility for writing ballot titles and summaries should instead rest with the legislative analyst, who is selected by a bipartisan legislative committee to provide objective and impartial budget and policy analysis.

Such a change would require voters amend the state Constitution. Senate Constitutional Amendment 3, by Sen. Roger Niello, R-Rancho Cordova, is this year’s attempt to place the issue on the ballot. Don’t hold your breath: Seven prior attempts since 2008 have failed to pass the Legislature.

More politics

Starting next year, the ballot label for each statewide measure will contain after the 75-word description a new, 250-character section listing nonprofit advocacy groups, elected officials and others who support and oppose the proposal.

The requirement — in a bill by Assemblymember Miguel Santiago, D-Los Angeles, that Gov. Gavin Newsom signed last year — also applies to local ballot measures unless the board of supervisors for that county opts out. Santa Clara County is planning to include backers and opponents for local measures, Alameda County officials have not decided, and Contra Costa County supervisors have wisely opted out.

In a smart analysis, Kristin Connelly, Contra Costa’s elections chief, noted that listing supporters and opponents would distract from neutral summary information; lengthen ballot measures by about 40%, requiring more ballot cards; drive up county costs by hundreds of thousands of dollars each election; politicize the ballot, which traditionally has remained largely neutral; and provide opportunity for promotion of candidates who may be on the ballot and are also supporters or opponents of a measure.

Less substance

State Sen. Scott Wiener supported the effort to add more political information to the ballot. This year, he introduced a bill to eliminate key tax information from ballot-measure wording for local bond measures. Wiener claims it’s too onerous to explain the cost to voters within the 75-word limit.

As we’ve shown repeatedly, that’s bogus. Local officials already waste too much of the precious ballot-wording space with incomprehensible, consultant-driven drivel designed to tout benefits and obfuscate costs of measures. Indeed, they have mastered the art of deceit so well that they consistently include the legally required amount of a bond measure’s tax increase without calling it a tax increase.

Livermore Valley Joint Unified School District Measure G.
Livermore Valley Joint Unified School District Measure G. 

For example, a typical school bond measure last year, after listing what the money from the measure would buy, then asked, “shall Livermore Valley Joint Unified School District’s measure issuing $450,000,000 in bonds at legal rates, approximately 6¢ per $100 assessed value while bonds are outstanding ($30,000,000 annually) be adopted, with independent oversight, audits and no funds for administrator salaries?”

The wording, which (embarrassingly for school officials) tortures the English language, never uses the word tax or explains that voters would be approving a property tax increase. The 6 cents per $100 assessed value isn’t about the issuance of the bonds; rather it’s the property tax increase needed to pay them off. And the wording never mentions that the tax increase would be for each of the 34 years the tax would last.

For those uninitiated in property-tax jargon, which is probably most voters, the wording is confusing shorthand for saying that the annual tax would be approximately $60 for every $100,000 of assessed value or about $360 a year for an average home assessed at $600,000. That’s what voters deserve to know.

Wiener’s bill recently was amended in a Senate committee: Ballot wording must still include the amount of money to be raised annually and the rate and duration of the tax, but that information would be excluded from the 75-word limit. In other words, the bill would leave more room on the ballot for puffery before getting to the important details of how much a measure would cost taxpayers.

And there would still be no requirement to identify the tax increase as a tax increase. As the bill progresses through the Legislature, it should be amended to require that ballot wording clearly explains a tax increase and identifies it as a tax increase.

California’s blue lawmakers rightly condemn red-state ballot suppression. But they lose their moral authority when they undermine the democratic process here.

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