This November, when California voters face Proposition 58 on the ballot, many of them may not realize what they are voting on – and new research suggests their ignorance will make a difference.

Proposition 58, placed on the ballot by the legislature and the governor, seeks to repeal the key provision of Proposition 227, the English Language in Public Schools Initiative that California voters passed in 1998. Specifically, Proposition 58 would eliminate Proposition 227’s requirement that public schools transition most English language learners into mainstream English-only classes after one year.

But Proposition 58’s Orwellian ballot label doesn’t make that clear, and in fact may suggest to voters that the measure’s real purpose is almost the reverse.

The label reassures voters that Prop 58 “Preserves requirement that public schools ensure students obtain English language proficiency.  Requires school districts to solicit parent/community input in developing language acquisition programs.  Requires instruction to ensure English acquisition as rapidly and effectively as possible.”  Voters ambitious enough to make it to the end of the summary will discover that it also “authorizes school districts to establish dual-language immersion programs for both native and non-native English speakers.”

There is no mention of the fact, pointed out in the Legislative Analyst’s review of the measure, that 58 repeals key provisions of 227.

Does this misleading description matter?  A recent survey conducted jointly by the Institute of Governmental Studies at UC Berkeley and the Field Poll strongly suggests that it does. (See details about the survey and a full description of results here.)

The poll divided a sample of 1,800 registered likely California voters evenly into three equal groups.  The first was given the ballot label authorized by the Attorney General.  The second was instead told that Proposition 58 repeals the provision of Proposition 227 that required transition to English-only classes for English language learners after one year.  The third was also told about the repeal of this requirement and then given a supportive argument that noted the value of multilingualism in a globalized economy as well as an opposing argument that English fluency is necessary to get good jobs.  These arguments have featured prominently in debates over the issue.

The Field/IGS poll showed that support among those who received just the official ballot label was overwhelming: 69% supported Proposition 58 with only 14% opposed.  Support among registered Democrats was virtually universal (73%-8%), but 62% of Republicans also said they would vote in favor.

However, when told that Proposition 58 repeals the requirement to transition students to classes taught only in English as required by proposition 227, the public reverses itself, with only 30% in support and 51% opposed.  Support among Republicans drops to 12%, among Democrats to 44%.

These results affirm decades of research showing that much of the public supports using bilingual education to ease English language learners’ transition into mainstream classrooms but also opposes the “cultural maintenance” model that would permit dual-language instruction through high school.

Exposure to the competing arguments restores some this lost support for Prop. 58, leaving a closely divided public 39% in favor and 41% opposed.  The arguments had similar effects across partisan groups.  In other words, Californians may be persuadable on this issue if there is a campaign to inform them about it.    Unfortunately, the confusing language of the ballot label makes it unnecessary for the backers of 58 to work to inform and persuade voters that it is time to expand bilingual education.

There is nothing new in the idea that voters are uninformed about the issues that direct democracy puts before them.  This leaves them vulnerable to manipulation.  Many citizens will surely use a ballot measure’s label as their guide in making a choice.  In California, the state’s Attorney General, a partisan elected official, has the discretion to draft ballot titles and labels.  We can be sure that attorneys general of either party will be sensitive to the demands of interest groups who lobby for favorable wording.  As the case of Proposition 58 indicates, choices about how to describe ballot measures will often prioritize the agendas of elites and organized lobbies over the goal of giving voters as clear a choice as possible.

Recent reforms have given the legislature a larger role in the initiative process. If elected officials truly are interested in making direct democracy’s outcomes more informed and legitimate, the next step should be to hand over the labeling and description of initiatives to a non-partisan expert body.