How Proposed Changes to California Ballot Measures Could Affect Election Results
When Major League Baseball opened its 2023 season this month, players and managers had to contend with a raft of new rules, including time limits on pitchers and batters and limits on bunching infielders on one side of the diamond.
Whether the new rules speed up the games, as intended, is still uncertain, but it is certain that they will affect outcomes to some unknown extent. Changing the rules of any game changes outcomes, and what’s true in sports is also true of politics.
The most obvious example of how changing rules affects outcomes is redistricting – the redrawing of legislative and congressional districts after each decennial census. Republicans hold a majority in Congress largely because GOP-controlled state legislatures redrew congressional districts to give the party more opportunities to win seats. For decades, Democrats have done the same thing when they had the chance.
This year’s session of the California Legislature includes three major efforts to change rules governing ballot measures, all of which could affect outcomes.
One of them, Senate Bill 858 – and a companion measure, Senate Constitutional Amendment 3 – is the latest of many attempts to remove the attorney general’s authority to write the official titles for statewide ballot measures. Introduced by Sen. Roger Niello, a Republican from the Sacramento suburbs, the two measures would give the task to the Legislature’s budget analyst, who already provides the fiscal analysis of proposed measures.
It’s a change that should be made because recent attorneys general, all Democrats, have blatantly skewed official titles, with positive slants for liberal measures such as tax increases and negative ones for proposals of conservative groups. Judges have occasionally intervened in extreme cases, but generally defer to the attorney general.
Not surprisingly, those on the left want to maintain the status quo so Niello’s two-bill package is likely to join other proposed reforms in the legislative trash pile.
Rule Changes Sponsored by Dems Likely to Pass
The other two efforts to change the rules governing ballot measures come from Democrats and thus are more likely to be enacted.
One, by Sen. Scott Wiener, a San Francisco Democrat, would undo two genuine ballot measure reforms that the Legislature passed and former Gov. Jerry Brown signed less than a decade ago. They require local tax and bond ballot measures to clearly state their financial impacts in the 75-word summaries that appear on the ballot and prohibit authorities from using summaries to extol the proposals’ virtues.
Local government officials hate the reforms because giving voters unvarnished facts might make them less likely to pass such measures. Wiener’s Senate Bill 532 would shift the financial data to the voters’ pamphlet, thus freeing officials to once again use ballot summaries for propaganda.
Wiener claims the bill would “improve ballot measure transparency” but it would have exactly the opposite effect, burying the facts and thus making it easier to pass tax and bond proposals – which, of course, is the intended result.
Finally, there’s Assembly Bill 421, carried by Assemblyman Isaac Bryan, a Democrat from Culver City, at the behest of unions and other liberal organizations.
As the Legislature turned to the left in recent years and enacted many new business regulations, those impacted by the new laws have increasingly turned to the ballot to thwart them. AB 421 is clearly aimed at making it much more difficult – or even impossible – for business groups to overturn laws via ballot measures, either referenda or initiatives, by imposing very tight new rules on qualifying them for the ballot.
AB 421 is likely to win legislative approval, but its ultimate fate is in doubt. Both Gov. Gavin Newsom and his predecessor vetoed similar proposals in the past.
About the Author
Dan Walters has been a journalist for nearly 60 years, spending all but a few of those years working for California newspapers. He began his professional career in 1960, at age 16, at the Humboldt Times. For more columns by Walters, go to calmatters.org/commentary.
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