Ballot Measure Titles and Summaries Should not be Written by Attorneys General

Joel Fox
Editor of Fox & Hounds and President of the Small Business Action Committee

A couple of months ago, at a discussion on the initiative process at a Zocalo Public Square meeting in Los Angeles, the panelists were asked what one thing they would change with the initiative process. As a panelist, my answer: Take away the power to write the initiative title and summary from the attorney general’s office.

Now come two newspaper columns that highlight the mislabeling of initiatives by the current Attorney General, Kamala Harris. John Diaz, editorial page editor of the San Francisco Chronicle simply used the word “unfair” to describe some of the titles and summaries written by Harris.  Columnist Dan Walters of the Sacramento Bee argued that Harris’s titles and summaries “fixed the game” to sway political outcomes.

Diaz pointed out instances from the administrations of other California attorneys general, both Democratic and Republican, who appeared to shade ballot summaries to be in line with their political philosophies.

The issue of attorneys general writing political slants into titles and summaries apply to attorneys general of both major parties and go back many years. I remember attending court hearings on ballot titles and summaries in the mid-1980s when a single judge was responsible to handle such issues. That is no longer the case.

Diaz pointed out some of the problems with recent titles and summaries by AG Harris dealing with the tax increase initiative supported by Governor Jerry Brown and the pension reform initiatives filed by a citizen group.

Diaz wrote the attorney general’s summary of issues in the Brown tax measure: “could not have been more flattering if they were written from the governor’s talking points.” Diaz also declared the pension reform summary: “could not have been cast more darkly – and, on some key points, deceptively – if they were written by the public-employee unions that oppose them.”

The title and summary on a ballot measure may be the only thing a voter reads about an initiative. Therefore, the title and summary are crucial to the voters understanding of a measure and are often determinative on which way a voter casts a ballot.

The fact that attorneys general follow their political bearings should not be a surprise to anyone. Not only is the attorney general’s office partisan, but also that particular office is seen as a jumping off point for higher office in the political food chain.

Removing politics from any endeavor is darn near impossible. However, striving for a neutral analysis on ballot measures is a worthy goal. I believe some of the partisan politics can be squeezed out of the title and summary process if the job is taken away from the attorney general.

As the initiative plays a greater role in the governance of our state, creating a neutral process is essential.

The title and summary task should be assigned to the Legislative Analysts office or better yet, an office made up of retired judges who have no political axe to grind.

Then the voters can anticipate a more neutral analysis when they prepare to make crucial votes.

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