The problem with ballot titles: The Urgent Need for Honest, Unbiased Ballot Title Language

In every California election, voters are asked to approve numerous ballot measures proposed by county and municipal governments as well as other government agencies. While their subject matter may be wide-ranging, all ballot measures have at least one thing in common: they all start with the 75 word maximum ballot question – a question required by law to be brief, accurate and impartial.

Unlike state measures, the wording of local ballot measures does not require approval by anyone other than the jurisdiction proposing the measure and desiring it to pass, a group that cannot be expected to be impartial. A significant percentage of all voters do not read the Pro and Con arguments found in the Voters’ Handbook. Instead they decide from the words that appear on the ballot alone.

The Civil Grand Juries in both Alameda and Santa Clara counties found many problems in the ways ballot questions are drafted. In general, the juries found ballot questions suffer from a “proponent’s bias”, Ballot questions too often fall short of what voters have a right to expect in terms of transparency and impartiality. For example, tax increase measures regularly tout public benefits which are not actually contained in the official ordinance raising the tax. Or they exaggerate the benefits and gloss over the costs. Or, just the amount of the specific tax increase may be cited, but the existing rate, to which the new tax will be added, is not even mentioned. Ballot measure raising the salary or benefits of employees or elected officials fail to reveal what the increase is as a percentage, and omit the annual cost of such an increase.

The Grand Jury believes voters deserve better ballot titles.. There remains a tremendous need, in the pre-election period, for a credible and impartial body to review and rate ballot language appearing on an upcoming election. The Grand Jury found that such a panel and process would improve transparency and completeness of ballot questions while working within the tight timelines required for ballot submissions. Most important,  voters seeing rating on titles will be incented to read further in to the ballot details.  The results would not be legally binding but would function more like the popular Yelp ratings that the public is familiar with.

For the reasons described above, the ballot questions that the Grand Jury reviewed generally fell short of what voters have a right to expectThe Grand Jury found that the overarching goal in drafting the questions was to promote voter approval. There currently is no check on local governments as to how they write the ballot question. There should  be a truly independent analysis of the measure’s 75-word language correlated with the actual ballot measure.  Given the inherent bias of these processes to promote , approval  many of their local government plans and programs, these issues will not fix themselves. Local governments have a vested interest in continuing to favor the deceptive language that has worked so long for them.  An independent body is sorely needed. Is there a group in Alameda County that can lead this effort ?

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