Fairness is a paramount principle in American politics. We go to great lengths to ensure fairness at all levels of political campaigns. If a candidate or campaign is given preferential treatment above others, it would provide an unfair advantage and completely undermine the equal opportunity that is an intrinsic part of democracy.
Unfortunately, California’s ballot initiative process has a glaring flaw that allows for the title and summary to be manipulated in a way that can influence an election outcome. The Attorney General, a partisan office, is charged with the responsibility of ensuring voters have a clear, unbiased presentation of each initiative’s purpose and effect. But writing the title and summary for ballot initiatives has become too political, resulting in biased, often misleading information that directly affects how voters determine their support or opposition.
In addition, the California state legislature may place measures on the ballot and have the authority to write their own, often biased titles and summaries. A blatant example of how the public can be misled was the May 2009 Special Election when the legislature placed Proposition 1A on the ballot and craftily drafted a title and summary that concealed a proposed tax increase. In fact, there was no mention in the title or summary that Proposition 1A would increase taxes by $16 billion, the largest tax increase in California history.
Almost every election cycle, the California Attorney General’s office is sued by initiative proponents over title and summary language. And in almost every case the courts give deference to the Attorney General.
Recently a California State Senator was forced to a file suit when an initiative he sponsored received a misleading title and summary. The initiative requires valid photo identification prior to voting. But Attorney General Jerry Brown’s summary described it as placing a “limit” on voting and “prohibits citizens from voting” without identification. Such biased language was designed to deter voters from supporting the measure. This is just one of many examples of how the current system allows for dishonest representation of an initiative’s true intent.
Clear Language on Ballot Summaries is a California ballot initiative I recently submitted for circulation. This common sense measure will remove from the partisan Attorney General’s office and the legislature the responsibility of drafting title and summary for initiatives. These initiatives are laws that will govern our lives and deserve to be treated fairly on the ballot. This should not be a political game that politicians can tamper with.
Regrettably, this flaw in the system must be addressed through direct democracy in the initiative process because the current legislature refuses to deal with this issue. Last year California Assemblyman Roger Niello introduced AB 319, legislation that would reduce partisan bias by transferring responsibility of writing initiative title and summary from the Attorney General to the Legislative Analyst’s Office. The bill was summarily rejected; not even reaching the Assembly floor for a full debate. Niello has once again introduced the bill, AB 1968, but it is once again certain to fail in committee.
The National Conference of State Legislatures reiterated the impact of an unbiased title and summary: "The ballot title and summary are arguably the most important part of an initiative in terms of voter education. Most voters never read more than the title and summary of the text of initiative proposals. Therefore, it is of critical importance that titles and summaries be concise, accurate and impartial."
If voters must rely on ballot title and summary to make informed decisions, they deserve to have an impartial, accurate description of an initiative. Removing this responsibility from a process that has become too partisan will mean a better-informed public and therefore better laws.