Words matter. And when those words appear on the ballot, where space is limited and the competition for voter attention is high, they matter a lot.
This has become an issue for a group of Republicans who have proposed a ballot initiative to repeal a recently passed package of gas taxes and vehicle fees. On Friday, they sued California Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra, a Democrat, claiming his office put a partisan spin on the title it gave their initiative. Instead of describing the initiative in a straightforward way, saying something like "Repeals the gas tax," the title says instead: "Eliminates recently enacted road repair and transportation funding by repealing revenues dedicated for those purposes."
The description is accurate, as far as it goes. And even though the words "taxes" and "fees" don't appear in the title, they do appear in the summary that goes directly after the title on the signature petitions and on the ballot, if it qualifies. Anyone taking the time to read through the petition before signing it would figure out what the measure was all about.
Still, the title is clunky and manages to avoid the simple and direct words that would clarify for voters what the initiative actually does. Worse yet, the initiative's proponents believe that the language was made intentionally opaque to weaken the measure's support.
Ballot proponents do not get to dictate the titles that go with their proposals, but there was no reason this title had to be so tortured. Does that mean the word choice was politically motivated? Not necessarily. It could merely be the result of having been written by lawyers. Ultimately, it will be up to a judge to decide whether Becerra should rewrite the title and summary.
But such complaints are unnecessarily common in situations where an attorney general from one party prepares the language for a ballot initiative pushed by people in the other party. State law gives the attorney general the responsibility of writing "true and impartial" titles and summaries for ballot measures without creating "prejudice, for or against the proposed measure." Nevertheless, more than a couple of attorneys general have been accused of choosing — or omitting — words for the ballot title or summary to make a political point or to sway voters.
For example, former Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren, a Republican, was sued for his decision not to include the hot button words "affirmative action" in the summary of Proposition 209, the controversial 1996 ballot measure that ended state affirmative action programs. Former Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris, a Democrat, was accused of bias when she wrote the summary for a pension reform proposal. Jerry Brown, when he served as attorney general, was criticized for the language he used to describe Proposition 8, the same-sex marriage initiative.
There's a pretty simple solution: Give the duty to a nonpartisan third party. This idea has cropped up periodically in recent years, but hasn't gone anywhere. The most recent proposal, by Assemblyman Kevin Kiley (R-Roseville), would reassign the writing of ballot titles and summaries to the Legislative Analyst's Office. The proposal (which would itself be in the form of a ballot initiative) was supported by California Common Cause and the League of Women Voters of California. But it was opposed by Becerra and died in its first committee hearing.
Kiley's bill may be dead, but this is an idea that ought to be given serious consideration by both parties. The LAO has done an admirable job of writing clear, concise and apolitical analyses of proposed legislation. It stands to reason the LAO would produce ballot titles and summaries with the same non-partisan balance and clarity.
It's bad enough that the titles of ballot measures are often vague and unhelpful. (Just consider two competing measures on the November statewide ballot: Proposition 62, titled simply "Death Penalty," and Proposition 66, with the title "Death Penalty. Procedures." Only when voters read the summary did it become clear that one measure proposed ending the death penalty in California and the other proposed speeding it up.)
Voters shouldn't have to wonder also if ballot titles are a product of political spin.