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The Least Scrutinized Initiatives Get the Most Votes

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    NEWSLETTERS

    Here's some bad news from the California election results: it appears that the best way to win an initiative campaign is to avoid attention and scrutiny.

    That, at least, is one interpretation of the big victories posted by three measures: Proposition 35 (on human trafficking), Proposition 36 (on Three Strikes), and Proposition 39 (on corporate taxation and green energy.

    What do these measures have in common? Nothing, except for the fact that they got little serious attention and scrutiny during the elections.

    Conventional wisdom is that voters vote no on measures when they don't know the details, but in fact, voters often rely on the ballot title and summary, and measures that seem uncontroversial can sail through when there is little attention.

    Prop 35 probably got less attention than any other ballot initiative. But it won easily -- with more than 80 percent of the vote, even though the initiative adds to the state budget deficit without providing a funding source.

    Voters seem to have read the title and concluded: who could be against human trafficking legislation? (The answer, unknown to many voters: a who's who of people who have worked on the issue in California).

    Prop 36, a tweaking of the state's Three Strikes law, also didn't get much attention. It won with nearly 70 percent of the vote.

    And then there's Prop 39, which changes the formula for state taxes on corporation. This measure did far better than the other two tax-hike initiatives -- Gov. Jerry Brown' successful Prop 30 (53 percent at last count) and Molly Munger's politically disastrous Prop 38 (less than 30 percent of voter approval at last check).

    But this success came even though Prop 39 got only a fraction of the attention that Propositions 30 and 38 got. It was as though getting ignored helped the initiative.

    And that shows what's wrong with the way California does direct democracy.

    By piling long lists of initiatives onto long ballot, the state guarantees that most measures won't get much attention. And this creates incentives for initiative sponsors to avoid doing the right thing -- engaging the public in dialgoue -- and instead do the wrong thing -- trying to give the measure a low profile.

    It should go without saying that each initiative on the ballot deserves thorough debate. But California's system discourages that. This is why the state should spread out ballot initiative elections on a separate election calendar (with votes every months or so) and make sure voters never have to choose from more than 3 measures on the same ballot.

    That way, each initiative would get serious attention.

    And maybe mistakes would be avoided.

    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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