Who Should Write Ballot Measure Titles? The Voters

Kamala Harris

It's initiative season, and everyone is angry at state Attorney General Kamala Harris.

That's because in California, the attorney general -- a partisan, elected official -- writes the official titles and summaries that appear on ballots.

Such titles and summaries are influential because they are the last thing voters see before casting their ballots.

Harris, like attorneys general before her, appears to have put her thumb on the scale, and issued titles and summaries that serve the political purposes of her political allies.

Writers in the San Francisco Chronicle and the Sacramento Bee took her to task for misleading, politically motivated titles and summaries in recent days.

What to do?

For years, would-be political reformers have suggested taking this power away from the attorney general. Most recently, Joel Fox urged giving the duty to the non-partisan legislative analyst's office, or to a committee of retired judges.

Those aren't bad ideas, but there's a better approach. Let California voters themselves draft the titles and summaries.

That's quite workable.

In Oregon, a new process called the Citizens' Initiative Review puts together juries of regular voters to study initiatives -- and then write arguments for and against initiatives. Those arguments then appear in Oregon's official ballot pamphlet.

The same process could be adapted to California, with the juries producing the official title and summary for each measure.

Turning this process over to voters would do more than simply make the drafting of initiatives fairer and less partisan. It would be an opportunity for broader public engagement and greater deliberation in the initiative process -- a process that is dominated by moneyed, powerful interests.

Such a process also would encourage initiative sponsors to draft clearer, simpler initiatives -- so that the voters drafting the titles could be easily understood. That would be an improvement, since initiatives have grown longer and more complex in recent years.

Let us know what you think. Comment below, send us your thoughts via Twitter @PropZero or add your comment to our Facebook page.

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