Stop Wasting Our Time with Meaningless Ballot Arguments

I've just read the official arguments for and against (and the arguments against the for argument and against the against argument) all 11 statewide measures on November California ballot. These are the arguments you'll see in the voter information guide.

And I wish I had that time back.

The arguments don't tell you much. They are political boilerplate, full of poll-tested platitudes that don't really reckon with the hard questions posed by the measures.

Which is by design and tradition. The arguments for and against are typically offered by those people working in conjunction with the yes and no campaigns for each measure. And the language is the very same language you'll hear in TV ads and other propaganda from the campaigns.

But the initiative and referendum process is not supposed to be the province of the interests that support or oppose each initiative. The process is supposed to belong to the people -- whose signatures put measures on the ballot and whose votes determine the results.

So why not ballot arguments of the people, by the people, for the people?

Instead of turning the official ballot arguments over to the campaigns, why not have the Secretary of State set up a process to let members of the public examine the measures, and offer their own arguments for and against the measure?

This isn't a crazy idea. It isn't even a new idea. Oregon has begun doing just this, through its Citizens Initiative Review process.

Citizens juries of voters that are representative of the Oregon population are brought together in Salem for a week. (I'm planning on attending the next such session the week of August 6).

They hear testimony from the sort of people who write ballot arguments in California -- professional advocates and activists tied to the campaigns -- and from other experts. Then the jury members write up a Citizens' Statement that includes key information about the measure. The statement also offers the strongest arguments -- based in real study and fact -- both for and against the measure.

Examing these citizens' statements, they are much clearer, substantive and descriptive than what we see in California. So why not try this here?

It's not as though we'd be losing much by ditching our current arguments.

Lead Prop Zero blogger Joe Mathews is California editor at Zocalo Public Square, a fellow at Arizona State University’s Center for Social Cohesion, and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (University of California, 2010).

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