Are You Smart Enough to Be a California Voter?

by on October 7, 2014 · 0 comments

in California, Election

What's My LineBy Lori Saldaña

(DISCLAIMER: This is a lighthearted look at a serious topic: how to read a California State Voter Information Guide. No names or facts have been changed to protect the innocent. Read it with a grain of salt, a sense of humor, and/or an open mind.)

The official voter information guide has arrived in the mailboxes of Californians all over the state! Have you checked it out yet, and started reading through its pages? Or is it sitting under a pile of bills, letters and other papers, where it will remain until a few days, or hours, or minutes before you realize it’s Election Day?

Don’t delay- find it! Open it!! Read along!!!

In case you’ve misplaced it: The November 4, 2014 election Voter Guide is a relatively light 80 pages long. It is printed on recycled post-consumer waste paper with a union print shop logo affixed on the back cover, and instructions in 10 languages.

It is meant to be read and used to help you understand a few important questions being put before you on Election Day.

In past elections the Guide has topped out at many more pages than this year’s, as initiatives, referendums and Legislative Constitutional Amendments were added. For 2014, there is only 1 amendment, 3 initiatives and 1 referendum.

Quick quiz: What is the difference between these three items?

Your choices are:

A) “Initiatives” must be reviewed by the Attorney General, then, if approved and qualified by enough signatures, are placed on the ballot.
B) “Amendments” and “Referendums” are items that have been passed by the Legislature, but still require voter approval
C)You lost me at “10 languages” in the previous paragraph.
D) Both A & B
E) All of the above.

Correct answer: D (maybe E).

Basically, since 1911, citizens in California can submit proposed language for ballot measures to the Attorney General for constitutional review, then, once approved, gather signatures to qualify for the state ballot.

Quick quiz: How much does it cost to ask for a review by the state Attorney General of a proposed constitutional amendment that may change the lives of 38 million Californians?

A) no charge- it’s our inalienable right to petition the government for redress of offenses, real or imagined!
B) $200
C) Both A & B
D) What does it matter- it’s priceless!
E) All of the above.

Correct answer: C (maybe E).

According to the Secretary of State’s website:

“At the time of submitting the draft to the Attorney General, the proponent(s) must pay a fee of $200. The $200 fee is placed in a trust fund in the Office of the State Treasurer **and is refunded if the initiative measure qualifies for the ballot within two years after the summary has been issued to the proponent(s).** [outraged emphasis added] If the initiative measure fails to qualify within that period, the fee is put into the General Fund of the State. (Elections Code section 9001(c).)”

So, if the measure qualifies, you get your $200 refunded.

That’s right: The charge for this review, to determine the constitutionality of a measure that will impact 38 million people in one of the top global economies: $200 up front, but in reality costs $0 if you successfully gather the signatures and place it on the ballot. (Signature gathering is a wholly separate, and much more costly, process.)

…imagine how much legal advice you can get from most private attorneys for $200. Frankly, you’re lucky if they give you their phone number for that amount.

The state Attorney General’s office originally charged this fee to recoup some of the costs of reviewing a proposed initiative measure that could have permanent, long term impacts on people’s lives. Despite this, the constitutionality of successful initiatives have been challenged in court and overturned. (And if the state defends this, even more taxpayer funds get involved).

Is $200 a sufficient amount for this service? Well, imagine how much legal advice you can get from most private attorneys for $200. Frankly, you’re lucky if they give you their phone number for that amount.

But wait- it gets worse. This low fee makes “language shopping” a popular practice. One organization submitted 7 different variations on their proposal language for a measure a few years ago because, hey, at $200 each, it’s a bargain!

That shopping spree generated language that was then tested via surveys and polling, and eventually the winning statement became Prop. 8, and ultimately read: “Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California.”

So simple. So easy. So few words. So few dollars- for the proponents.

Yet in retrosepect, 6 years after that “simple” language was placed on the ballot and approved by voters, it’s clear that Prop. 8 had a huge and costly impact on many lives in, requiring a state Supreme Court proceeding, and additional lengthy and expensive court battles (much of it paid for by taxpayers) that ultimately overturned that “vote of the people.”

Quick quiz: which is correct?

A) $200 is a fair cost for private businesses to attempt to change the state constitution
B) $200 is a public subsidy for private interests that want to “ballot shop” various proposed initiative statements and can be abused.
C) You’re joking, right? This whole “reform initiative” thing has become an end-run around the legislative process, to put items before the voters that have no chance of getting through the Legislature; they lack important reviews, analyses, and public hearings, and are increasingly offensive to democratic principles on many levels.

(No answer for this one- you have to make up your own mind.)<

As for where I stand: In 2007, I introduced a bill to incrementally increase this fee. It seemed clear that the Attorney General’s costs of reviewing ballot measures have increased since they were last adjusted in the 1940s.

…in fact it has been over 30 years since a true “grassroots” initiative, organized by non-profits and volunteers, has made it on the ballot.

The bill made it to Gov. Schwarzenegger’s desk, and he vetoed that proposal, citing concerns that raising the cost to a more reasonable $2000 over the course of a few years would hurt “grassroots” democracy. While this sounds reasonable, and makes the veto a win for “direct democracy in action,” in fact it has been over 30 years since a true “grassroots” initiative, organized by non-profits and volunteers, has made it on the ballot.

In recent years initiatives have become a way for wealthy interests to work around proposed policies and/or existing laws that they oppose. (E.g., marriage equality, which gave us Prop. 8 in 2006, or, locally, the San Diego Minimum Wage increase ordinance.)

Who is paying for these measures? Let’s look at the Voter Guide, page 17, where it clearly says: “Visit for details about money contributed in this contest.”

So… you need a computer, Internet access, and the ability to search online to see who’s paying, since these contributions come in over the course of the election, and often change daily.

Also- it does NOT tell you who paid to gather those signatures after the initial language was approved by the Attorney General office.

That will be addressed in a future installment.

game show panel

This first appeared at our online media partner, San Diego Free Press.

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