Column: Political Road Map: Some believe there’s bias baked into the official descriptions of California initiatives

Before ballot initiatives are circulated for vote signatures, a title and summary for the measure are drafted by the attorney general. Critics say those summaries sometimes are written to favor or oppose a particular side.
(Bryan Chan / Los Angeles Times)

Of the many tasks facing Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra in his new job, it was an unheralded duty that Republican legislators wanted to pin him down on during recent confirmation hearings in Sacramento: the vetting of ballot initiatives.

The attorney general is tasked under California law to write a brief title and summary of each measure that will end up on the state ballot.

“What will you do to ensure that you’re being descriptive and objective, and following the election code, when you write those ballot titles and summaries?” asked Assemblyman Jordan Cunningham (R-Templeton).


To understand the question requires knowing a bit of California political history. Attorneys general have long had the duty to collect and then prepare proposed initiatives before the measure’s backers can begin collecting voter signatures.

But in the era of big money initiative campaigns — generally viewed as the years following the landmark 1978 property tax rollback, Proposition 13 — critics have occasionally complained of partisan scheming, alleging that the title and summary of an initiative are sometimes crafted in a way that pleases the attorney general’s political allies.

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Opponents of Proposition 13 complained that former Atty. Gen. Evelle Younger, a Republican, wrote a summary that didn’t reveal the law made it harder to pass tax increases in the Legislature. Gov. Jerry Brown, in his time as attorney general, took fire over the ballot summary for the 2008 ban on same-sex marriage, Proposition 8, and its emphasis on how the (now defunct) law would “eliminate” the right of same-sex couples to marry.

Advocates of overhauling California’s public employee pension system have balked more than once over initiative titles and summaries written by Democrats serving as attorney general. In 2005, a proposed reform was summarized as removing death and disability benefits. The most recent attorney general, now Sen. Kamala Harris, also came under fire for her summaries of efforts to change pension benefits for government workers.

The evidence is largely circumstantial. And judges have generally given pretty wide latitude to the attorney general, who’s simply instructed in state election law to summarize “the chief purpose and points” of an initiative.

But it’s also a potential game changer. Strategists and pollsters often believe an initiative’s title and summary is a prescient predictor of the campaign ahead. And some California voters make snap decisions on ballot measures based on those easily accessible nuggets of information.

Given that Democrats have held the office of attorney general for 18 years, it’s hardly surprising that the loudest calls for change come from Republicans. But those efforts have been routinely rebuffed.

In 2015, legislation to impose new rules on the attorney general was quietly killed in the Assembly’s appropriations committee. Earlier this month, newly elected Assemblyman Kevin Kiley (R-El Dorado Hills) decided to go one step further. His proposal would change the state’s constitution and transfer the responsibility for initiative titles and summaries to the independent Legislative Analyst’s Office, which currently writes a fiscal analysis of each measure.

As for Becerra, the Los Angeles Democrat told lawmakers in confirmation hearings this month that he believes in fairness when it comes to summarizing initiatives.

“I know many of you will be reading over my shoulders,” he told assemblymembers on Jan. 10. “And I understand the importance of a word.”

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