Easy Reading? California’s 224-page Voter’s Guide

By: Tyler Sherman

As November 8—election day—drew closer and Californians geared up to cast their ballots, election officials mailed out the state’s Official Voter Information Guide. The guide listed and explained each of seventeen ballot propositions—the most to appear on a single ballot in sixteen years. But not only was the ballot replete with more propositions than in any election in nearly two decades, the Guide itself set the record of being the longest voter guide in California’s history, at an enormous 224-pages long.

The voluminous, statewide guide did not come cheap. Compiled in Sacramento over the course of seven weeks, the total cost for printing and mailing alone comes close to $15 million dollars. The Guide’s heft, however, is arguably necessary. Indeed, the seventeen propositions that qualified for a spot on the ballot ran the gamut, ranging across an array of issues, including marijuana legalization, repeal of the death penalty, and a requirement that all adult film actors wear condoms. Other propositions included proposition 59, an intricate proposal to ask California’s elected  officials to use their authority to pursue an amendment to the United States Constitution overturning the U.S. Supreme Court’s controversial decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which held that laws limiting independent political expenditures by corporations were unconstitutional. To add yet more complexity to the ballot, other propositions included votes on gun control, a higher tobacco tax, and revenue bonds.

Almost immediately, questions arose as to whether the whopping, 224-page guide actually helped perplexed voters navigate the convoluted California ballot. Commentary lampooned the length of the mailer, going as far as to list popular novels that are shorter than the Guide. But, insofar as sarcasm goes, the question is whether those concerns are legitimate.

For many, the concerns are valid, and political organizations themselves have commented on the confusing ballot. “It is a very confusing ballot this year. There are so many ballot measures, and so many of them seem to contradict one another,” Jeanne Brown, membership director of the League of Women Voters of California and president of the league’s San Diego branch, is quoted as saying. Brown’s statement has merit, referring to clashing propositions like propositions 62 and 66. Proposition 62, which voters defeated on November 8, would have repealed the death penalty in California altogether. On the other hand, proposition 66, which is still pending approval, will potentially alter the trial procedures by which executions and death penalty appeals are carried out, ultimately speeding up executions.

True, the election is over and Californians have cast their vote on complex proposals, but that does not mean that the concern of whether the Guide actually helped to accurately guide voters is irrelevant. California Secretary of State Alex Padilla himself is quoted as saying that the guide is meant as a quick reference, providing information for voters “short on time.” And so, the same question remains: is a voter guide that can arguably be called more of an endurance test than an accessible source of information—let alone one which voters can be guaranteed to read—really the best way to inform voters?

As of now, the answer is not clear. Voter confusion and informed voting are legitimate concerns, and few would argue that informed voting is a partisan focus. This year’s ballot contained 17 difficult, potentially life-altering propositions, and the Guide, arguably, hardly made them any easier to navigate. When ballots are long, voters are less likely to vote at all, and so perhaps the effect will be minimal. Just weeks out from the election, only time will tell. But for better or worse, having read the 224 pages of the Guide or not, Californians cast their votes.

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