Confusing, secret initiative process is ripe for reform

Oped from Kathay Feng and Helen Hutchison from LWV

Viewpoints: Confusing, secret initiative process is ripe for reform

By Kathay Feng and Helen Hutchison
Special to The Bee
Published: Tuesday, Apr. 22, 2014 – 12:00 am

If you are like most Californians, you like that you can vote on important issues via our state’s initiative process. It is a century-old tradition in California – let the people speak and follow their wishes.

But more and more often these days, the people aren’t sure what they’re wishing for.

Let us ask a question.

When you look at your sample ballot, are you confused by the explanations of ballot measures – no matter the language in which they are printed?

Most Californians agree it’s much too confusing.

And do you know what else bothers us?

We don’t know who is supporting the initiative – and who is paying for it.

Is that how you feel?

You are not alone.

The vast majority of Californians feel the same way. That’s why 60 civic groups – a broad and diverse collection of Californians – spent the past year sharing ideas and opinions for changes that will lead to clearer initiatives, simpler ballots and better information for California voters.

The result is the Ballot Initiative Transparency Act. The League of Women Voters of California, California Common Cause, NAACP, AARP, California Forward and other organizations devoted to promoting transparent government decided the time is now to make improvements to the initiative process, ones supported by the vast majority of frustrated California voters.

Californians agree that our important initiative process needs to be improved; we all want clarity, transparency and fairness. According to a recent PPIC survey, 83 percent of Californians agree that initiative wording is too complicated and confusing. Eighty-four percent of us favor increasing public disclosure of funding sources for signature gathering and initiative campaigns. Almost as many – 77 percent – support a review process to help avoid legal problems and drafting errors.

The Ballot Measure Transparency Act, a bill introduced by state Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg that will have its first policy hearing today, looks at three steps to improvement.

1. It gives voters more useful information about initiatives and who backs them. We propose to use the secretary of state’s website to give voters one-stop access to information about the individuals and groups behind each initiative. It identifies the top 10 donors for and against each initiative and makes the sources of funding clear and easy to find.

2. It makes sure the ballots are voter-friendly and written in clear and impartial language. The Ballot Initiative Transparency Act will ensure that ballot descriptions are easily understood by the average voter and make clear whether new taxes are being imposed or existing laws repealed. Rather than being loaded with technical jargon, ballot materials will be written in clear and impartial language.

3. It also would ensure that the public – you, me and our neighbors – plus the Legislature will have time to give feedback on proposed initiatives so we can catch errors and flaws and create room for corrections and compromise. And to help simplify the ballot, backers of an initiative will be able to withdraw the initiative after signatures are gathered but before ballots are printed.

Californians are pretty clear about how to protect our historic initiative process and improve it.

We think initiative wording is too complicated and confusing.

We favor increasing public disclosure of funding sources for signature gathering and for initiative campaigns.

We support a review and revision process to avoid legal issues and drafting errors and the general confusion that our current process can create.

And we believe that now is the time to make these changes. Every election we wait, more critical decisions come before voters. For example, this fall we will be asked how to manage our future water use and health care system – perhaps even about the future of California itself.

The Ballot Initiative Transparency Act will give us the tools we need to make smart, informed decisions. In the great tradition of California voters, it allows us to trust ourselves.

Kathay Feng is the executive director of California Common Cause. Helen Hutchison is vice president for Advocacy and Program of the League of Women Voters of California.

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