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The official guide to misleading voters

ROBERT GREENE is an editorial writer for The Times.

DON’T BE surprised if a confused friend or neighbor asks you how you plan to vote on the June 6 ballot measure to ban welfare for illegal aliens. It’s there, she’ll tell you. She saw it in the ballot pamphlet.

You’ll say that’s impossible. There are only two measures on the ballot: Proposition 81 is a library bond; Proposition 82 is a tax for preschool education, and that’s it. So where’s the illegal-alien welfare ban?

You won’t be able to find it in your Official Sample Ballot, sent to registered voters by the county. But now take a closer look at the bigger book that came in the mail -- the Official Voter Information Guide, sent out by Secretary of State Bruce McPherson. Go to Page 8, where you’ll find nonpartisan summaries of both propositions, with explanations of what your “yes” or “no” vote would mean.

Then come the summary arguments, where you’ll find this assertion about the library bond: “A no vote forces free-spending politicians to cut welfare for illegal aliens to pay for our libraries.”

But in fact there’s nothing in the text of the library bond about welfare or illegal aliens. A vote against Proposition 81 would not have any effect on illegal aliens. Can they really make that kind of statement in the Official Voter Information Guide?

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They can. The attorney general’s office writes up the official title and summary, which for this election you’ll find on Pages 10 and 14, and the state’s nonpartisan legislative analyst provides a description of the initiatives and their fiscal effect. Their job is to provide unbiased, straightforward information. But the pro and con arguments come from the campaigns for and against the initiatives, and they can say pretty much anything they want.

California election laws give each side an opportunity to read the arguments submitted by their opponents, then write rebuttals. If one side’s statements are believed to be false or misleading, the other side can sue and let a judge decide. The secretary of state’s job is just to print it up and send it out, without checking whether any of it is fair or even true.

In that sense, the Official Voter Information Guide (available, by the way, in seven languages, and costing $9.3 million this year to print and mail) becomes an extension of the pro and con campaign mail that floods mailboxes a few days before each election. Backers and opponents of ballot measures can, and often do, say pretty much anything to get you on their side.

And what about the illegal aliens? In the longer argument against Proposition 81, on Page 13, Assemblyman Ray Haynes (R-Murrieta) and his coauthors argue that the state’s bonded indebtedness is many times higher than it was 20 years ago, which is true enough. Then they add: “We spent $9 billion on illegal alien welfare last year, yet the state can’t find one dime in money for libraries, and has to borrow money again? Something is wrong.”

Left out is the fact that California lawmakers, in the wake of court rulings that federal law preempts state action, have little power to cut welfare to undocumented immigrants. Also left out is the bolder assertion, from the summary argument a few pages before, that voting no would force lawmakers to take action on illegal immigrants.

The secretary of state’s guide, where all these arguments are presented, is 64 pages long. Reading just one or two pages can be misleading. Reading the whole thing is like cramming for finals. Should becoming an informed voter take this much homework? The question is beside the point. Free speech and the right to vote may be precious, but they aren’t always pretty.


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