AG’s Ballot Language Under Fire Again in California

Wed, Jan 8 2014 by Neal Hobson

The proponents of a statewide pension reform initiative are crying foul at the ballot summary prepared for their proposed constitutional amendment by Attorney General Kamala Harris.  San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed called the language “inaccurate” and “pejorative” and “a bit of a problem.”

“You read this and you don’t know what we’re trying to do,” Reed added. The first sentence of the AG’s summary was most problematic according to Reed. It reads: “Eliminates constitutional protections for vested pension and retiree healthcare benefits for current public employees, including teachers, nurses, and peace officers, for future work performed.”

This isn’t the first time that Attorney General Harris has been criticized for slanting the language in an official ballot summary. In 2012, another similar pension initiative received a description from Harris’s office that forced the campaign to call off the effort based on polling of the description.

In fact, as columnist Dan Walters wrote in the Sacramento Bee, “the state’s major newspapers weighed in, editorially admonishing Harris, in effect, to play it straight” this time in writing the ballot summary. Walters concluded, “And Harris pretty much did so.”

The California AG’s office is constitutionally tasked with drafting a 100-word ballot summary for each initiative measure filed, prior to circulation of petitions.

Back in 2012, there was also controversy over Proposition 28’s ballot title. Polls showed voters favoring the initiative, at least when read the AG’s summary of the measure that made the change seem like a toughening of term limits. The official summary said Prop 28 “reduces the total amount of time a person may serve in the state legislature from 14 years to 12 years and allows 12 years’ service in one house.” A Public Policy Institute of California poll using that language found 68 percent support.

But a March 2012 poll conducted by Citizens in Charge Foundation found the support for Prop 28 among likely voters, once voters were given more information – “Proposition 28 increases the total amount of time a person may serve in the state assembly from 6 years to 12 years.  It allows a person to serve a total of 12 years either in the Assembly, the Senate, or a combination of both” – plummeted a whopping 40 points down to a meager 28 percent.

“Voters may receive a lot of conflicting messages on any ballot measure from supporters and opponents, but the information they receive from their government should be fair and unbiased.” Citizens in Charge Foundation Chairman Michael Foudy said in releasing the poll results.

Citizens in Charge has joined a growing chorus urging reform for California’s ballot title process. Kathay Feng, executive director of California Common Cause, recently put forth initiative reform suggestions that included removing partisanship from the drafting of ballot titles and summaries.

If the current pension reform initiative begins petitioning with Harris’s description, proponents would need to collect 807,615 valid signatures by June 5. Proponents could also challenge the AG’s ballot summary in court, but California courts have traditionally afforded the AG’s titles and summaries great deference.


Reuters: California pension reformer disputes write-up of initiative

SacBee: California attorney general clears pension-change ballot measure for signature-gathering

Dan Walters: California pension reform movement clears one hurdle

California Titles and Summaries for Pending Initiatives