Long Ballot Blues

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

With expected November ballot measures falling away because of political pressure, costs and legislative deal-making, the concern of an extremely long ballot has diminished somewhat but a long ballot still could confront voters. The length of the ballot could play a role in determining outcomes of some of the measures, especially appearing at the end of the ballot.

Because of the minimum wage bill signed by the governor, two minimum wage initiatives thought to be headed for the ballot likely will not go forward. Likewise, an expected property tax initiative that was moving ahead on signature gathering with enough resources in the bank to get the qualifying job done was suddenly pulled. A measure pursued to send high-speed rail money to water storage projects was dropped. Others may follow.

However, measures already qualified for the ballot (a referendum on the single use plastic bags and a hospital fees initiative) are likely just the point of a galloping herd of ballot measures voters will face.

For example, its possible voters will see all the following measures on the November ballot: the cost of pharmaceuticals purchased by the state; a cigarette tax; an extension of the Proposition 30 income tax; a legislative transparency measure requiring bills to be in print three days before a vote; marijuana legalization; background checks on gun ammo; approval of revenue bonds over $2 billion; a $9 billion school construction bond; Gov. Brown’s criminal justice reform; death penalty measures, pro and con; and hospital executive compensation restrictions.

Does a long ballot matter to those supporting some of these measures? The political class thinks so. Remember when Gov. Brown convinced the legislature to move his school funding initiative, which became Proposition 30, to the top of the heap. The rule in place before the legislature changed it positioned the initiatives as they qualified for the ballot. That would have placed the tax measure somewhere down the list of initiatives by the order in which it qualified.

Concern for proponents whose initiatives end up toward the end of a long list of candidates and ballot measures is “decision fatigue.” As defined in an Atlantic Magazine article on ballot positioning, decision fatigue “suggests that as people make several consecutive choices, the quality of their decisions deteriorates” and that it could result in a swing of several percentage points.

According to UC Berkeley’s Ned Augenblick and Scott Nicholson, the chief data scientist at Poynt, Inc. cited in the article, “When we get tired of choosing, we are more likely to want to preserve the status quo, which for state and local propositions means voting no.” The two studied San Diego voting results, figured the difference on a measure being at the bottom of the list of propositions as opposed to near the top could be about 3-percent swing in votes, enough to make a difference on a number of measures.

Most initiative experts think that position on the ballot does matter to some degree.

Yet, the increased NO vote on later initiatives is not always the case. In fact, when California voters confirmed the initiative, referendum and recall in a 1911 special election they had to wade through 23 ballot measures placed on the ballot by the legislature. They approved 22. The only measure voters rejected was one the self-serving legislature put on to allow public officials to have free or discounted passes on public transportation. That measure was number 19 of 23 on the list but I suspect its placement had little to do with its defeat.

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