I respect and admire California’s mainstream institutions. They do essential work with not enough resources.

But I hate their ballot measure guides.

And I would suggest you be careful before using any of them.

What’s the problem with media ballot measure guides?

Some are better than others, but most fail to provide the most basic and essential information.

The most fundamental problem with these guides Is fundamental; they explain the yes and no sides on ballot measure campaigns as though such measures are really a poll on how you feel about an issue.

Ballot measures are not polls on issues. To the contrary, when you are voting on a ballot measure, you should not think of yourself primarily as expressing an opinion on an issue.

No, you are behaving as a politician yourself. You are making a law. Or you are amending the constitution. Or you are raising a tax, or you are borrowing billions of dollars that have to be paid back.

That’s why they call it direct democracy.

So while your opinion on an issue might be interesting, it is the details of the law you are making that really matter. And we have a long history in this state of measures that, because of their details, actually ended up hurting the issues the measures’ authors were seeking to advance.

So what do you really need to know about a measure? You must start with three things—and the problem is that most of the media guides won’t tell you any of them.

  1. What kind of measure are you voting on? It’s shocking how often media guides don’t explain whether a measure is a law or a constitutional amendment or both or something else. I encountered this omission often this year in media ballot guides on Prop 6, which is often described as a repeal of a gas tax increase. The media guides miss the fact that Prop 6 actually amends the constitution—to require public votes on any future changes to gas taxes, auto fees, or – by my reading – the rules and regulations governing driving. For all the attention spent on Prop 6, the last sentence would probably be news to most Californians. That’s a failure.
  2. Can the measure you are voting on be fixed if there are problems in it, or unintended consequences?

Amendability is a huge issue in California because most measures don’t permit the fixing of measures – except by those who have billions of dollars to put another initiative on the ballot. We have introduced all kinds of errors into our constitution and law via our ballot measure process. Our initiative process is the only one in the world that doesn’t permit legislative amendment in some way. And when initiatives change the constitution, they also don’t allow legislative amendment.

When a measure doesn’t allow amendment, you as a voter need to know that because it should make you extremely cautious. It’s one thing to agree with the gist of a measure. But are you so confident that it’s perfect and won’t require amendment?

California often asks you to do that if you vote yes.

  1. Does the measure give special legal and constitutional powers to its proponents? Many recent measures include language granting extraordinary legal powers to their proponents. The most common thing is to say that proponents can turn themselves into de facto elected officials who can defend or even work to enforce the law in the courts. And taxpayers have to pay for this legal work, and elected officials can’t stop them from defending the law – even if such defense would impact all kinds of issues. In effect, many measures have a legal blank check for the proponents. But media guides don’t tell you this. And it’s important information that you as a lawmaker need.

Beyond those fundamental omissions in media guides, there are often other problems. The media guides often describe the effects of measures with certainty, when the effects are usually unknown or uncertain, and will be determined by judicial rulings.

And the very style of the media guides—short and pithy—also is a disservice to the public and voters. By their style – and by the way media organizations market their guides – they are suggesting that by reading just a few paragraphs or viewing a one-minute video, you can be adequately informed enough to vote your true interests on a ballot measure.

That suggestion is profoundly irresponsible, in a couple of ways. First, our ballot measures are often thousands of words long and can’t be accurately explained in one minute or a few paragraphs.

Second, these media guides falsely reaffirm that overall ballot process in the state is democratically valid and manageable for voters. And it’s not.

It is simply too much for voters, who have lives, to be properly informed on 10 or 12 ballot measures in on election. Much less in an election with dozens of candidate races.

That’s why places that take direct democracy seriously – like Switzerland – don’t do direct democracy this way. They don’t vote on ballot measures as the same time they vote on candidates. Instead, they hold open dates for short elections on only 2 or 3 ballot measures on each day, so that voters can actually learn about each ballot measure in detail, and cast an informed vote.

Media have huge responsibilities in our democracy. But by pushing forward their ballot measure guides, they are enabling a broken system, and acting in a way contrary to their democratic responsibilities.

If they are going to produce ballot measure guides, they need to be longer and more complicated. But I would argue that it’d be better if they didn’t produce the guides at all, and urged voters to reject all measures until California develops a serious and responsible system of direct democracy.