Can voters consider a bunch of complicated ballot initiatives at once? Not really.
So with 10 initiatives on this November's ballot, a number of measures aren't getting enough attention, scrutiny, and debate for voters to make informed decisions.
This is natural, in a way. The two competing temporary tax initiatives, Propositions 30 and 38, have big money behind them, and are drawing big media attention because of Gov. Jerry Brown's role in the fight.
Prop 31 has been pretty well-scrutinized by media organizations, many of whom care about reform.
Prop 32 also has big money on both sides, so its details and flaws are getting sufficient attention.
Prop 34, the death penalty repeal, and Prop 37, the initiative to label some genetically modified foods, have received extensive publicity, both in the national media and on California television.
Voters who are paying attention would have enough information to make well-informed decisions on all of these initiatives. But what about the others?
The others simply aren't attracting enough attention, debate, and deliberation to inform voters -- and to make the November vote a legitimate popular judgment.
- Prop 33, an initiative to change auto insurance, has been backed by one wealthy insurance company owner, but there's been no real substantive debate on the issue.
- Prop 35, on human trafficking, isn't drawing attention., because who could be against human trafficking? But there are real arguments against this measure -- particularly because the new penalties it imposes would add costs and burdens for law enforcement, when state and local governments don't have any extra money. Legislators who opposed a bill to do some of these same things also had questions about how broadly some new restrictions in the bill would apply. Prop 35 may be a good idea, but we don't know that yet because it hasn't really been scrutinized by the full force of engaged citizens and the California media.
- Prop 36, a three strikes change, has a similar problem. It has a big lead in the polls, because no one is talking about it.
- Prop 39, a corporate tax change, is a close call. It's gotten some attention, and the idea of changing the corporate tax has been debated closely for several years, including in the last legislative session. But the way the initiative would spend money from additional corporate tax revenues -- on green energy projects -- hasn't received scrutiny.
So what to do? Voters might be wise to go with the strategy of simply voting no on things they don't know much about it. But what would be even better would be to take such measures off this ballot -- and delay them to another time.
This sort of thing can be done in some other states and countries with the ballot initiative process. But not in California. Once an initiative is on a ballot, it's on the ballot -- and it can't be moved. The result is that voters will be voting blindly on these measures.
But there's another solution to this: limiting the number of measures that can be on any one ballot.
One way to do that would be to separate ballot measure elections from candidate elections, as is done in Switzerland, which was the original inspiration for California's initiative process. The Swiss hold quarterly elections on initiatives and referenda. Those elections are set up to make sure there's only one or two initiatives on the time, so each measure gets scrutiny, deliberation, and debate.
California should adopt the Swiss election calendar, and vote up to four times a year on measures. Each initiative deserves some time in the sun before we vote on it.