Confusion on the California Ballot

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Illustration by Anna McGrew.
Illustration by Anna McGrew.

Proposition 52 supports an existing hospital fee. But due to its dense content and language, it has been described  as “it’s own worst enemy” by the San Francisco Chronicle.

On Nov. 8, California voters will cast their ballots on Proposition 52 and 17 others full of political jargon. Issues range from tax proposals and legalization of Marijuana to background checks for ammunition and the death penalty.

This spectrum wields significant power in the lives of all Californians. Of the 17 propositions, at least three sets of them oppose one another. This adds an entire new obstacle to the state voter.

Proposition 62 and 66 are one of these pairs. Voting “yes” on Proposition 62 will abolish the current death penalty system. While voting “yes” on Proposition 66, will speed up the appeal process for inmates, hoping to get them off death row sooner.

In a polling experiment done by Capitol Weekly, a little over a month ago, 2,637 voters were given three different versions of a mock California ballot.

The results showed of the 92 percent of people who voted yes on Proposition 66, 40 percent of those same supporters voted in favor of Proposition 66. This discrepancy can be explained by the complicated nature of each propositions and the ballot’s layout.

On the ballot itself, the measures are split up, rather than side by side. This design can confuse voters on the difference between a “yes” and “no” vote, and how it’s not as simple as one proposition being opposed to the other.

Based on the results of Capitol Weekly’s study, there is a “significant disconnect” between how voters intend to cast their votes, and their actual votes.

The two other sets of propositions include a ban on plastic bags and measures to increase or decrease taxation and bond revenue. The study’s results followed the same pattern, with voters supporting the opposite of what they intended to support.

Beyond the complex propositions themselves, their language poses a problem for voters in understanding what they’re voting for.

There’s a barrier between the voter and ballot — they’re at an immediate disadvantage, unable to digest the text, and this leads to polls not accurately representing the population — creating a false reflection of the state’s values.

With issues like the death penalty, which deal with human lives, and often innocent ones, it’s disturbing and unacceptable that a few misinterpreted words can determine whether someone lives or dies.

Help America Vote Act (HAVA), enacted in 2002 by President George W. Bush, was created to improve federal voting systems. HAVA led to the formation of the Election Assistance Commission (EAC) intended to clarify information on election laws and procedures.

The current expectation of voters is to read through glossaries provided by the EAC, which “contain 1,843 terms and phrases used in the administration of elections in the United States,” according to a statement by the EAC.

This resource is intended for non-English speakers, and it includes terms like split precinct, hanging chads and marksense — which many English speakers themselves aren’t familiar with.

Rather than providing pages of translations, vocabulary should be made accessible to the average person. Because of the current system, voters are more susceptible to voting on the wrong measure.

Under the “Available Resources” tab on EAC’s voter guide, there’s a checklist of things to do before election day, with no sign of resources to address the problem of not understanding the diction of ballot measures. The only advice is to “become acquainted with the candidates and issues on the ballot.”

Yes, voters must research the propositions and place orders for Official Voter Information Guides if they want physical copies prior to election day. When there are measures  that directly contradict one another, some so confusing they may not pass and others worded deceitfully — research is not enough.

It is the responsibility of political leaders to address the confusion on the ballot and propose necessary alterations, while it is in the hands of proposition writers to provide clear and legible descriptions and instructions.

Secretary of State Alex Padilla introduces the online version of the “Official Voter Information Guide” on the California secretary of state’s website, with a short letter urging people to vote.

“Through voting, you help select your local, state and national leaders, and ensure that your voice is heard,” Padilla’s letter reads. “[…] I encourage you to participate in your most fundamental right as a citizen of the United States of America.”

But if we cannot correctly vote on ballot measures, then how is our voice to be heard?

This is disenfranchisement — without an accurate representation of all perspectives on the framework of our state and country, we cannot exercise an important democratic freedom and privilege.

With the combination of both the largest number of measures on a ballot since 2000 and over 300,000 people registered to vote as of Oct. 24, there’s a lot of content on the ballot as well as new voters who might not be as familiar with it.

If voters run into similar problems on the upcoming election day as they did in the Capitol Weekly poll experiment, there’s a chance the results could be skewed. This would not only reflect poorly on our values, but would ultimately do a disservice to democracy itself.

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