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Busting Through Ballot Confusion: Clear Explanations of Key CA’s Initiatives

Posted: Oct 24, 2012

SACRAMENTO -- Marielos Moreno is worried because she doesn’t understand any of the propositions that will be on the ballot in November.

“I don’t know what I’m going to do. I’m going to need help. I don’t know anything about politics,” said Moreno, a Salvadoran immigrant who works as a nanny in Vacaville, Calif., and will vote for the first time in the Nov. 6 presidential election.

Marielos isn’t alone. The average California voter doesn’t understand the ballot initiatives, especially the ones having to do with higher taxes and government reform.

PROPOSITION 30 Vs. 38: This year it’s even more complicated because there are competing initiatives. For example, Prop 30, proposed by Gov. Jerry Brown, would result in a quarter-cent increase in the state sales tax for four years. And it would raise income taxes for seven years for those making over $250,000 annually.

If voters pass Prop 30, the state would receive $6 billion to fund K-12 education, community colleges and universities. That would also free up state funds for other needs. If the measure doesn’t pass, it would trigger automatic cuts to education.

Proposition 38 seeks to increase virtually all state taxes for 12 years, from a 0.4 percent increase for low-wage earners to a 2.2 percent increase for those with a salary of more than $2.5 million. The proceeds would go for schools, to pay down the state deficit and, to a lesser extent, to fund early childhood programs. This initiative would not direct any funding to higher education.

If voters approve both Props 30 and 38, the one with more votes will go into effect where the two conflict, according to California law. For instance, if Prop 38 gets the higher vote total, while Prop 30 also were approved, the state would enact Prop 30’s section continuing state funds for public safety services transferred to local governments last year. That’s not included in Prop 38.

If there’s anyone who sees the difficulty for average voters in comprehending ballot propositions it’s Jaime Regalado, professor emeritus of political science at California State University, Los Angeles, and former director of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs.

“They’re very confusing and difficult since they are written by lawyers, and they have technical language with titles that often have little to do with what the proposition seeks to achieve,” he explained.

Regalado believes that initiatives that have the most money behind them are often the most difficult to grasp. “Sometimes they make them deliberately confusing,” he stressed.

The danger is that voters who don’t understand an initiative tend to vote no or leave it blank.

“Interestingly, the most difficult ones, which have to do with raising taxes and changes to the government, are also the initiatives that have the greatest impact on the lives of those who work in factories, as domestic workers and the middle class in general,” Regalado observed.

There are several other measures on the November ballot that are difficult to understand.

PROP 39--ALSO ON TAXES: Another tax measure is Proposition 39. It would require out-of-state corporations to pay taxes in California based on the sales they make in the state. The result is that they would pay more in taxes. Half of the revenue obtained by this measure in the first five years ($550 million a year) would be dedicated to projects that create clean jobs, and the remainder would fund public schools.

PROP 31’s TWO-YEAR BUDGET: Also hard for average citizens to understand is Prop 31. It would establish a two-year state budget. Currently, California’s budget has to be approved each year. The initiative would also prohibit legislators from approving spending more than $25 million unless they have identified spending cuts or other revenue that would support them. It would also allow the governor to cut the budget unilaterally during a fiscal emergency.

Other parts of the proposition would require the state to publish bills at least three days before they are brought to a vote. It would also allow local governments to develop their own procedures for administering state funds.

PROP 32 AND UNIONS: Proposition 32 prohibits unions from using funds deducted from the payrolls of their constituents for political purposes. It also prevents corporations from making direct or indirect contributions to committees controlled by candidates. Unlike corporations, though, unions fund almost all of their political activity through such paycheck deductions.

Republican consultant Michael Madrid says that unfortunately there is no easy guide for Latino voters that isn’t partisan.

“It’s hard, and we’re giving them a lot of work to understand and vote for these initiatives. What I would recommend to Latino voters is to go to the organizations that advocate for their interests like the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Initiative and Southwest Voter Registration Education Project to guide them on who they should vote for.”

“These organizations have their own agenda, but at least it’s in the interest of Latinos,” says Madrid.

Marcela Arias, a Latina Republican who voted for the first time this year by sending her ballot in by mail, said that she blindly followed the recommendations made by her party. “I wouldn’t have known who to vote for without that guide. And that made it easier for me when I filled out my ballot, because you don’t have time to analyze and read all the information they send you,” she said.

The task of deciding whether to vote for or against the 11 initiatives that will appear on the ballot is even more complicated for voters who aren’t politically savvy, and are constantly bombarded each day with ads through media, mailings, and even by phone.

Independent, nonpartisan organizations, such as the California Budget Project (CBP), have analyzed some of the propositions, such as Prop 30, 31 and 38, with the aim of translating them for the electorate on some of the more complicated issues.

“We do these analyses mostly to help people who are really busy or don’t have enough time to spend hours to analyzing the propositions. Our goal is to make them easier to understand,” said CBP Executive Director Christopher Hoene.

It can take days for governance specialists to study the propositions and do an analysis, a researcher admitted informally to a group of reporters.

For Marielos Moreno, who has to work up to 14 hours a day, it isn’t practical to search online for information to help her understand the initiatives.

“I’m going to turn to a friend who knows politics and whom I trust to guide me about whom to vote for,” she said.

Other voters are turning to family members or going to public hearings in their neighborhoods organized by special interest groups.

"THE PROPOSITION SONG": Realizing how difficult it is for voters to understand the initiatives, the nonpartisan, nonprofit California Voter Foundation (www.calvoter.org) decided to make a song about it – “The Proposition Song.” The catchy tune explains each of the propositions on the ballot in one line in a simple, upbeat way.

"We hope our new proposition song gives voters an entertaining and informative alternative to the negative campaign ads that inundate our airwaves," said Kim Alexander, president of the California Voter Foundation, in a statement.

Here is the link to the proposition song: http://www.calvoter.org/voter/elections/2012/general/props/song/index.html

The only drawback is that the proposition song is only in English.

This story was made possible by a grant from the James Irvine Foundation and was produced as part of a New America Media's governance fellowship program.

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