Had enough of ridiculous political candidates? Then think of the rest of the ballot, the part that can affect you personally—those sneaky ballot measures.
Visualize this. You wait in line to vote for your chosen nominee after months of repetitive hype. You mark a ballot for your candidate, then select many others for lesser offices, most of whom you don’t recognize. Then you get to those long, wordy choices called ballot measures, initiatives, or propositions.
You read one or two of them and realize you don’t understand the possible impact of “YES” or “NO.” Many voters stop at that point and submit their ballots. Others believe they must enter a vote, and guess at the impact of their choices. A relatively small group—perhaps ten percent—have seen an ad for or against a specific measure and make an impulsive choice.
Finally, ten percent who are ardent believers for or against a measure make an informed choice. They might be environmentalists, education advocates, advocates for homeless people, or any of dozens of other groups who believe their state should add or change a law.
Most voters have no idea of what they have chosen, or how that choice will affect their lives. In many cases, the passage of a ballot measure will have a direct impact on every citizen in the state. Voters are effectively writing laws, many of which will have unexpected consequences.
Twenty-five states, including my state of California, add these additional decisions to our ballots. Our votes on a ballot measure may raise taxes, release criminals from prison, determine education quality for children, or any of hundreds of other areas that affect our lives.
Ballot measures were probably noble ideas when they first became part of the electoral process. Over time, however, politicians and organizations have discovered sneaky ways to use them to end-run the legislative process. They often have measures written by scholarly attorneys who know the legal definition of words that may differ from general use. They also use trickery such as double negatives that confuse the meaning of sentences. Hapless voters often misunderstand the wording and vote for or against measures in error.
An interesting example is the infamous California “Prop 8.”
The official title of Prop 8 was: Proposition 8 – Eliminates Right of Same-Sex Couples to Marry. On November 4, 2008, voters approved the measure and made same-sex marriage illegal in California. A federal judge later ruled that Proposition 8 is unconstitutional under the U.S. Constitution.
Personal disclosure: I voted against Prop 8. My vote was against the government regulating personal marriage choices for anyone. It was neither for nor against same-sex marriage, per se, though it effectively supported it.
After a deluge of TV ads for and against Prop 8, many voters became confused. Understanding that the measure dealt with same-sex marriage, many people favoring same-sex marriage voted for the proposition. Many people who were against same-sex marriage, voted against Prop 8. As a result, it was impossible to tell whether voters really supported or rejected the proposition.
California voters will see seventeen different ballot measures on November 8. They all need some study before each voter makes an informed decision. Some of them have had high volume advertising campaigns, for and against them. Advertising in some cases has been so sleazy, that many voters know less now than they knew before the advertising campaigns. Costs for this advertising will reach $450-million, according to the Los Angeles Times
Issues that Californians will vote on include marijuana legalization, gun control, healthcare and drug prices, condoms in porn, plastic bags, repealing or altering the death penalty, tobacco taxes, and several county tax or bond measures.
Voters need to understand how these measures reach the ballot. Measures are often unpalatable to elected lawmakers in state senates and assemblies. Often a large company or advocacy group uses a ballot measure to go around the legislators if it will increase their profits or gain some kind of social impact.
Ballot measures begin with petitions, often hawked by unknowledgeable volunteers or sales people. They approach busy shoppers outside of high-traffic stores with little more than a slogan like, “Please sign to feed hungry, homeless children.” When the army of petition carriers has enough signatures to reach the total required by law, most states require some form of legal review. Once the review declares the measure legal, there is usually a process to validate the petition signatures. However, some states waive the signature validation for a fee. Most measures can pass those hurdles easily. Many people don’t recall signing, and some sign without realizing that they are initiating a law-making process.
Memo to voters in states with ballot measures: Be wary of the impact of your perfunctory “Yes” or “No.” The proposition you validate or invalidate may affect your life for many years.