This piece originally appeared in the Capitol Morning Report.
Democratic legislators, at the request of their union allies, have passed SB 202, shifting all ballot measures qualified after July 1 from the June 2012 election to November 2012. This is because the pro labor forces expect to see an initiative on the ballot next year that would crimp labor’s ability to raise political money through automatic check-off of union dues. Dubbed "paycheck protection" by its supporters, the measure is likely to appear on the June ballot when turnout is likely to be low and could be heavily Republican if the GOP presidential contest is still on-going. Moving "paycheck protection" (and other initiatives) to November is based on the theory that a larger number of Democrats and union members, supporting President Obama, will come out in the fall and vote the measure down.
But the facts are more nuanced, and this move may have unintended consequences.
First a little history. Initially all ballot measures appeared on the November ballot, there were none at the primary for the reason that more voters turned out in November than in June. That is the policy reason given for the 2012 change, and it is legitimate. Why not have elections when people vote?
In the middle 1960s, however, the legislature changed the law and allowed measures on the June ballot as well. The reason was simple; the November ballot was getting too crowded. The last presidential election ballot with measures only in November was 1964; the voters had to choose between 17 measures on that ballot. Why not makes the choices easier, argued reformers, put some measures on the June ballot and November won’t be so crowded.
In 1968, there were only two measures on the primary ballot and nine measures on the November ballot; easier choices for the voters. But in those years almost all the ballot measures were constitutional amendments put on by the legislature to secure the required popular approval. The voters almost always passed them because they were not controversial. (One reason why our constitution is so unwieldy: the legislature kept proposing amendments and the voters kept voting for them.) In 1968, only one citizen initiative appeared on the ballot, in 1964 only four.
So if the governor signs SB 202, voters will have a large number of choices in November as a large number for initiatives and referenda seem likely to qualify: 25 measures are awaiting titling or in circulation as of today. And unlike ballot measures in the 1960s, many of these are likely to be very controversial. That may make it harder to pass a measure like paycheck protection as confused voters generally vote "no." But this could also endanger Gov. Brown’s tax increase measure that he wants to put on the November 2012 ballot. This is likely to be something labor wants, and a long confusing ballot could put it at risk.
There is another reason why the labor ploy might not work. Higher turnout elections do not mean more liberal voting on ballot measures. Democrats swept the partisan elections in November 2010, but conservatives won the ballot measure fights, passing the two-thirds vote requirement for fees and defeating a repeal of corporate tax breaks. And, of course, in November 2008, a presidential election year, voters passed the anti-gay marriage Proposition 8.
Paycheck protection measures have appeared twice on California ballots and were defeated both times. At the June 1998 primary, Proposition 226 was defeated 47 to 53 percent. The turnout in that election was 43 percent. In the November 2005 special election called by former Gov. Schwarzenegger, Proposition 75 lost 38.5 to 61.5 percent. The turnout for that special election was 50 percent.
Looking at these two elections, labor may be right in assuming that a higher turnout means paycheck protection is more likely to lose. But labor was successful in defeating paycheck protection in 1998’s lower turnout primary, and it is easier to educate voters and turn out your base in a lower turnout election. The larger November electorate is much more volatile and less predictable, as the vote on Proposition 8 in 2008 showed.
So the lesson of putting all ballot measures on the November ballot is that voters may face a very long ballot; they may be more likely to vote "no" on everything; and Gov. Brown may very well find that his tax initiative is a victim of voter confusion.