Evaluating California Ballot Propositions

A/N: this is just a description of my personal methods for researching ballot measures; you should tailor your own research to your own political interests. 

As elections approach this November, one additional factor for Californians to consider is the set of 18 ballot propositions on this year’s ballot. Under California’s initiative system, voters can directly for or against certain changes to law instead of having to vote for a representative who may or may not end up supporting certain laws. Ballot propositions can be proposed by legislators or directly by any citizens (or, more like by any major political organizations) who have the time and money to sponsor enough signature raising. On the one hand, it allows citizens a way to have a direct say in the development of law (direct democracy) instead of relying on shaky promises from a political representative; on the other hand it allows interest groups to use money and advertising to try and force changes in law that might not pass an elected legislature (like the anti-same-sex-marriage prop. 8).

California has a record 17 ballot measures to be considered this November.

When it comes to evaluating ballot propositions, you want to start by getting a general overview of each set of propositions. There are a few main sites that I typically use for getting a general overview of every single proposition on the ballot:

  • The most “official” proposition information comes from The California Secretary of State Voter Guide: http://voterguide.sos.ca.gov/en/propositions/
    This is the official state guide to all the current ballot propositions. Each entry includes the full text of the proposed law, analysis of expected fiscal effects of the proposition and it’s relation to current policy, and short summaries and arguments provided by both proponents and opponents of the bill.  That said, I do not recommend using the short summaries here as your main factor in deciding what to vote for or against. The descriptions in the official voter guide are often much to brief and can be misleading about the actual effects of each proposition. This site is much more useful as a simple references for topics (when you’re like, “which one was prop. 60 again?) or when you want to look into the nitty gritty of the propositions full text.
  • However, I find the overviews at Ballotpedia to be much more informative: https://ballotpedia.org/California_2016_ballot_propositions
    Ballotpedia provides brief summaries of each proposition, as well as major arguments for or against. More importantly, perhaps, it also includes information on which organizations have come out for or against the bill, as well as providing quotes from media endorsements for or against the bill. Everything is linked back to the original sources so it’s a good place to start your initial research and begin exploring further if you see endorsements for or against that intrigue you.
  • You can also see brief easy to read overviews  from KQED: http://elections.kqed.org/measures
    These overviews are briefer and easier to read than the other sources above, and provide pretty good summaries overall; they also chart the major campaign contributions for and against each proposition in a helpful format. Unlike ballotpedia, they don’t link to any outside coverage, but they do link to other NPR news coverage or interviews related to each measure, including some Forum radio interviews with advocates for or against some of these measures..

That said, these are still all sources that attempt to be “unbiased” and present a fair view of arguments for and against.  I, however,  am not unbiased – I don’t want a “balanced” evaluation of each proposition, I want an evaluation of how closely each of these will fit with my personal political beliefs. To that end, it helps to look at the endorsements for or against each bill from institutions I respect and tend to agree with politically; unlike the “balanced” coverage above, endorsements make explicit arguments for or against each bill (and sometimes, seeing the rationale being used to argue for and against these bills is more telling than the proposition itself). In addition to the endorsement summaries on Ballotpedia, the main endorsements I tend to look at are:

  • The LA Times: http://www.latimes.com/opinion/endorsements/
    As far as the “liberal conspiracy” of mainstream media publications go, the LA times tends to lean a little more conservative, and sometimes takes a more conservative view than I would personally agree with (especially on financial and budget issues). However, on many issues they are close enough to my opinions, and I also trust their editorial boards knowledge of California politics. The LA times is also the paper I grew up with, so I have a better intuitive sense for where it aligns and doesn’t align with my views. So while I don’t follow it’s endorsements automatically, I find the background details and research the provide very useful.
  • The Mercury News (San Jose): http://www.mercurynews.com/opinion/editorials/
    The Mercury News (formerly the San Jose Mercury News) is one I know less well since I’ve only been reading it for a few years, but it’s my current favorite of the major Northern California newspapers and seems to align fairly closely with my political views so far. It helps provide some contrast with the LA times endorsements since it comes from separate staff and a separate perspective.
  • The League of Women Voters: https://lwvc.org/vote/elections/ballot-recommendations
    The League of Women Voters’ primary goal is to support the right of women to vote and advance women’s participation in the political sphere, but they also support several progressive causes more generally. The California chapter publishes easy to read endorsements for all state ballot propositions.
  • The CA Democratic Party: http://www.cademvote.org/endorsements
    As a fairly establishment liberal, whether or not the Democratic Party of California supports or opposes a proposition is a quick litmus test for whether or not I would probably support it. However, the CA dem endorsements don’t provide much more than a one sentence rational, so they aren’t great to use on their own – they are better used as a comparison alongside things like media endorsements that contain more explanation and research.

In general, this is usually enough to get me a pretty good sense of what positions I want to take with respect to each ballot proposition. However, it’s always good to do more research when you can; as you read more endorsements you’ll probably encounter more questions, and google is your friend in finding more specific sources.

In addition, if you are doing your own research, you may want to look at endorsements form other organizations and individuals you trust – many political figures and local political organizations will publish endorsements, and nonprofit advocacy groups often post endorsements for or against propositions relating to their areas of activism. The organizations that align with my opinions may not align with yours.

Also, while this post is specifically regarding ballot propositions, I use pretty similar research techniques for local municipal or county initiatives and elected positions as well, just varying the exact sources used. (For example, if I’m evaluating judge candidates I might look at endorsements from the state bar association).

For followers – do you have any particular organizations whose endorsements or ballot summaries you find particularly helpful?

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About Sennkestra

I'm an aromantic asexual and a bit of an [a]sexuality nerd, recently graduated from UC Berkeley with a BA in linguistics. When I'm not reading stuff on the internet I like to cook fancy food, watch anime, and make costumes and other arts and crafts projects.
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