San Francisco

SF Voters Talk About the Tough Job of Voting on California Propositions

It's a big responsibility that can take hours of research — and these voters say they wouldn't have it any other way

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What to Know

  • This general election brought Bay Area voters 12 statewide ballot measures, and numerous others at the city, county and regional level
  • California's current form of direct democracy dates back more than a century, but came into its own with the landmark property tax measure known as Prop 13 in 1978
  • California ballot measures are the second most expensive pursuit in election politics — second only to campaigning for president

Direct democracy has become the law of the land in California: asking voters to approve taxes, weigh in on criminal justice reforms, and make policy decisions on everything from employment law to services for the homeless.

Many historians will point to 1978's Prop 13 as a turning point for ballot measures in California. The initiative fundamentally changed the way property is taxed in the state, ensuring that homeowners aren't priced out of their own houses by rising taxes, but also granting the same benefit to corporations. In this election alone, two different attempts to amend Prop 13 appeared on ballots across the state.

Though 26 states allow laws to be passed, changed or repealed at the ballot box, it's become such an integral part of California's governance that hundreds of millions of dollars are now spent on statewide ballot measures — making them the second most-expensive pursuit in American politics after the race for the White House.

But for the voters themselves, the cost is something different: time.

"It took probably two hours to sort through it," said one voter who'd just emerged from San Francisco's City Hall outdoor voting center wearing his "I voted" sticker.

"I had to do a lot of research," another voter told us on the eve of Election Day, still clutching her official San Francisco voter's guide after dropping off her mail-in ballot with poll workers at a curbside tent. "Reading up on the unbiased opinions on the pros and cons of each proposition. So lots of research, which is why I'm just getting out today to vote."

Yet another voter told us she and her friends scheduled a weekend Zoom call to go over ballot measures one by one. And though research methods varied among the voters we talked to, one thread remained constant: None of them seemed to mind.

"I think it's one of the few mechanisms that we have, for us as citizens to give our voice in some little tiny way," said a man arriving at City Hall to drop off his completed ballot. "In a lot of ways, one of the only ways we can communicate directly with our government."

"It's the responsibility of every citizen to inform themselves and really go over the mesaures," another voter said, emerging with his "I Voted" sticker just moments before early voting closed at 5 p.m. "Because the way you get it in that little box does not paint the full picture. These are very complex things with very real consequences."

Indeed, ballot measures can sometimes have confusing titles, or short descriptions that don't tell the entire story. Voters we spoke to said they often look at who's supporting or opposing a measure, or who's funding it, to figure out what it's really about.

For all the time spent deciding how to vote, one man said he thinks he and his neighbors come out of the process as more informed citizens.

"It was a lot. It was a lot this election," he said. "You had to really educate yourself on what's going on in our city. And the Bay Area in general."

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