The Title & Summary Ballot Test

Joel Fox
Editor and Co-Publisher of Fox and Hounds Daily

There seems only one way to remove from the attorney general the power of writing ballot measure titles and summaries–through an initiative. The obvious problem—the attorney general gets to write the title and summary for such an initiative. You can imagine the result.

Back in July, I wrote that new California Attorney General Xavier Becerra would face his first test on writing a balanced, impartial ballot initiative title and summary with the filing of a gas tax repeal measure. This week, a Sacramento Superior Court judge said he failed the test. Unfortunately, the title and summary fairness test must be harder than the Bar Exam since attorney generals of all political persuasions seem to have a tough time mastering it.

In this case, Judge Timothy Frawley tabbed as confusing and misleading the description written by the Attorney General. He said that a reasonable voter would have trouble understanding what the measure would do. The judge’s tentative ruling will be finalized at a hearing on the matter today.

This all brings up a favorite subject of mine—turning the title and summary powers over to a non-partisan office. It is impossible to eliminate politics from any process but it is possible to reduce political influence. As I’ve written more than once, I advocate that the Legislative Analyst take on the task of writing the title and summary, which has great impact on whether voters sign initiative petitions or choose to approve or reject ballot measures.

A Constitutional Amendment was introduced in the legislature this year by Assemblyman Kevin Kiley that proposed the same idea. It died in committee. This was not the first legislative attempt to take the title writing power from the AG and ship it to the LAO.

If the legislature won’t make the change, perhaps, someone should introduce the idea as an initiative.

Imagine the possible titles that the AG, any attorney general, would place on a measure to reduce his or her power.

It would probably go something like this:

REMOVES THE POWER OF A DULY ELECTED OFFICER TO WRITE BALLOT TITLES ON THE PEOPLES’ INITIATIVE AND GIVE POWER TO UNELECTED, UNACCOUTNABLE BUREAUCRATS!

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