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A Political Junkie’s Hobby: Explaining It All to Voters

Times Staff Writer

Surely Hiram Johnson, that thundering progressive, didn’t think it would take Steve Friedl to make his government reform movement work.

But nearly a century later, the 42-year-old software consultant and political junkie finds himself yet again translating the impenetrable prose of California’s ballot measures for his fans on the Internet.

“My friends are all bugging me for it,” said Friedl, who works out of his Tustin home. “I’ve got a couple dozen people waiting.”

Johnson, a California governor and later a U.S. senator, fought for initiatives, reforms and referendums in the years before World War I. Inveighing against the power of the railroads, he vowed that the voice of the people would be heard, strong and clear.

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But these days, critics say that when the people’s voice is there at all, it’s often muted by layers of dense, misleading and downright snooze-inducing verbiage.

This year, Californians will vote on 16 statewide measures, far fewer than the 48 that confronted the electorate in 1914.

Even so, the state’s 2004 Official Voter Information Guide runs 165 pages, more than half a pound of propositions, analysis, arguments and rebuttals on topics from Indian gambling to embryonic stem cell research, framed in language only a tax lawyer could love.

Although some celebrate the initiative process as an exercise in direct democracy, many voters are bothered and befuddled. They say they shouldn’t be called on to tackle the complex problems that legislators largely avoid.

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In 1990, a Times poll found that more than seven in 10 Californians thought the system had “gone out of control.” Other polls have found that an overwhelming number of Californians -- 75% in a poll four years ago -- think the process is a good idea.

People like Friedl dive happily into the electoral smorgasbord.

For years, he has gone where few have gone before, boiling down the turgid text of the measures into pithy observations to friends bound for the polls.

Of the Kindergarten-University Public Education Facilities Bond Act of 2004, on the ballot last March, Friedl had this to say:

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“My practice is generally to vote no on any bond measure where the proponents say -- in capital letters -- ‘does not raise taxes,’ ” he wrote. “It’s like saying that using your credit card is not spending actual money.”

The measure passed narrowly.

Although his avocation takes a lot of time, Friedl said he enjoys finding nuggets of sense that would otherwise remain buried.

Take Propositions 1A and 65, both of which would limit the state’s ability to divert local tax dollars.

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“I have a friend in a water district who explained it to me,” Friedl said. “Sacramento freaked out when they saw 65, so they made a deal for 1A, which waters it down some.”

Few voters admit to a zest for that kind of detail.

Jeri Lou Ellison, a teacher who lives in Folsom, went eyeball-to-eyeball with the Official Voter Information Guide but got only as far as many a student facing down an algebra text.

“It looks like a small telephone book,” she said. “It just sits there staring at me, and I haven’t taken a look yet. I just discovered there’s a short ‘Cliff Notes’ version at the front, thank goodness. I might have a peek at that before the election.”

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For now, the myriad issues have her spinning: embryonic stem cell research, mental health, three strikes, DNA, dueling measures on Indian gaming.

“There’s only so much you can comprehend,” said Ellison, 40. “How many of us have time to review all this? How many people do you think are going to read through this whole thing and have any idea what they’re really voting on?”

For that matter, countered John Matsusaka, president of the Initiatives and Referendums Institute at USC, how many legislators read the bills they pass?

“They don’t read all of them, and the governor won’t either,” he said. “They have trusted advisors who tell them what to do.”

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For some, Friedl is the trusted advisor. For others, it’s the public officials and interest groups who endorse a position, presumably after much study.

An economist who tracks ballot measures worldwide and who has just published a book on the subject, Matsusaka is upbeat about a system so many others bemoan. It’s no coincidence, he said, that the 24 states that allow initiatives also keep a tighter rein on spending and taxes.

“The process is imperfect, but so is regular old representative government,” he said. “If you stack them up side by side, the laws passed by initiative come out pretty well.”

Even if that’s so, people like Susan Clark worry that the daunting look and language of so many ballot measures can turn off prospective voters, particularly immigrants.

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Executive director of a San Francisco community education group called Common Knowledge, Clark puts together and distributes some 4 million copies of the Easy Voter Guide, a simple manual geared for voters who don’t have the kind of English skills required to plow through the state’s official publication.

Done in partnership with the state, it is published in English, Spanish, Chinese, Vietnamese and Korean and contains simple summaries vetted for accuracy by the nonpartisan state legislative analyst’s office.

“Forty percent of the adults in California read at the eighth-grade level or less,” she said. “The material in the voter information guide really requires at least a solid high school education to negotiate,” she said.

“New voters get flummoxed by a long ballot,” Clark added. “If they look at it like a test and wait till the night before to cram like a test, they might end up not voting at all.”

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Some counter that a long ballot might lure otherwise reluctant voters to the polls.

“It has to be something there that’s going to strike your attention,” said Herman Jones, lead organizer with the Los Angeles Community Action Network.

In registering the homeless and the poor, Jones begins by explaining initiatives that could have a direct effect on skid row: three strikes, health insurance, the creation of a DNA bank and others.

“That’s how we registered over 653 people,” he said. “We break it down and make it personal, and when we make it personal, then we allow them to make decisions.”

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Since 1911, when California became the 10th state to allow them, initiatives have stirred vigorous debate on property taxes, the death penalty, illegal immigration, affirmative action, doctor-assisted suicide and a host of more narrowly defined issues, including, for example, the use of steel-jawed leg traps on coyotes.

Fifty-five percent of the measures, which can be put forward either by citizens or by legislators, have been approved.

Even in a purportedly simpler era, voters had to wend their way through some perilous ballot language.

In 1914, for example, Proposition 27 asked for a change to county charters “authorizing such charter to provide for discharge by county officers of certain municipal functions of any municipality within said county incorporated under general laws which so authorize, or any municipality therein whose charter framed under section 8 of article XI authorizes.”

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The measure passed. Whether voters understood it remains uncertain.

Although initiatives in California were first aimed at restricting the enormous power of the Southern Pacific railroad, “special interests” soon exploited them, often with paid signature-gatherers and well-funded campaigns.

In 1936, dairy farmers worried about foreign competition wanted voters to impose a tax of 2 cents a pound on oleomargarine “grown and harvested by [Asian] labor.”

Despite spending more money that year than the backers of any other proposition, the farmers failed.

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Times staff writers Jocelyn Y. Stewart and Eric Bailey contributed to this report.


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