I spent 9 years in the Los Angeles area during my high school and early adult years. California gets a lot of stereotyped criticism from other parts of the country for any number of reasons, but I have fond memories of the state. And that includes how California manages its elections, and especially… its official election materials. I am reminded of that fact, every election year, ever since I have resided in other states.

To understand my point, let me give you a quick description of the sample ballot I just received for my current residence: Lake County, Florida. It is similar to the ballots I would get in Howard County Maryland, and Balitmore County Maryland.

  • It has a section for the politicians running for office, their party affiliation, and a check box to vote for them.
  • It has a list of sitting State Supreme Court judges with yes / no check boxes to vote whether they should be retained.
  • It has a list of proposed state constitutional amendments (from both the state legislature and from citizen’s initiatives), and other measures that the state government has placed on the ballot for a referendum. Each is described in basic terms of what the change to the law is, and has a yes / no check box to vote whether the change to the law should be made.

… and that’s it.  And, in my opinion, that sucks.  It’s the bare minimum information to know what you’ll be deciding, but it provides zero information to make any informed decision.  Sadly, this style of minimal-information ballot is quite common among the majority of US states (the exact extent, I do not know).

Since it was so long since I last lived in California, I wanted to see if the same ballot style was in use as I remembered from the early 80’s.  So I went online and pulled up the sample ballot for my old address in Los Angeles.  To my delight, they still have the same thoroughness in the ballot materials which I remember.. and they have actually added more.  I have a link to the sample ballot (it’s really a voter’s guide) at the bottom of this post, as well as a link to the one for Lake County Florida for comparison.

Here is how they differ.

In Florida: For the political candidates, all I know is what party they are from.  And, in the most prejudical, biased way I can imagine, the two predominant parties (Republican and Democratic) are pushed to the top ahead of other parties.  In California: I know the party of the candidate AND their occupation.  Knowing the occupation is more important than you might think at first.  And the parties are also not listed in order of size or influence, so you actually have to look for the Democrat or Republican candidate in the list.  There is no party prejudice in California’s layout: no subtle attempt to make two parties appear more important than the rest.

In Florida: The amendments and measures have only a crude description of what they are intended to do.  There is no summary of the potential financial impact the change (or lack of change) would have.  In California: there is that basic description, plus an independent statement from a comptroller stating the financial impact of the law being passed, and the financial impact of the law not being passed.

And then there is the stuff that makes California really shine: the arguments for and against, and the rebuttals to the arguments for and against.  They are not always submitted: sometimes the change has almost unanimous support and no one submits arguments.  But when they appear, the information in them usually reveals not only the good and bad side of the law, but a lot of reasons motivating the law’s proposal becomes obvious.

In Florida: The sample ballot has no instructions for voting, other than essentially saying that this is the sample ballot, and you can mark it up and take it with you to the polling place as a voting guide.  (duh)   In California: the sample ballot has full instructions for how to order an absentee ballot, and what to do with the ballot at the polling station when done, how the automation reads the ballot, and some reasons why it might be rejected.  This is what I remember about the California ballot information sent to the voters, and they have expanded the information in the modern ballots beyond that.

And what’s the most important thing about the California ballot guide:  it respects a person’s time, and it respects a person’s intelligence.  Even back in the 1970’s and 1980’s people were busy, and at that time the internet didn’t exist (at least, in the public sector).  So California’s voter guide consolidated thorough information on what was being voted on, in one pamphlet.  If I blocked out 30 minutes to 1 hour at any time prior to the election day, I could read the guide and be adequately informed, as an average citizen, on not only what I was voting on, but how my vote was be impacting the government spending (my tax money).

Even today, I would still spend 30 minutes to 1 hour reading all these summaries and arguments in each proposed amendment.  It is literally 30 minutes to 1 hour of unbiased information provided  by the government agency regulating and managing elections, and arguments from parties who had an active effort in the development of the proposed law.  Try getting 30 minutes to 1 hour of unbiased information from a commercial news source, who’s motive is profit and has zero vested interest in what they say about a subject–other than how much advertising money was made.  Sorry, commercial media will NEVER be unbiased–it won’t happen.

The reason I say the California voters’ guide respects my intelligence is that it makes no assumption that I am an information search guru, a political expert, or a lawyer.  If a democracy is to succeed, it has to work for all the members of society: from lawyers to layman.  To me, it is unreasonable to expect someone to get the Florida style ballot guide and make an even half-educated decision by doing their own research.  For the fun of it, take some of the amendments listed in the Florida ballot and do some simple Google searches to see what explanations you can find that explain the pros and cons, or the motivations of why the law should be changed.  It’s not very straight forward, and there are a lot of commercial sites with a bias to the explanation in the results.  So much for Grandma and Grandpa making their own effort successfully (in Florida).

In fact, I have to say it.  Over the 200+ year history of this country, we have not only fought for the right to vote, but even taken the time to pass amendments so that non-property owners, women and everyone 18 years of age or older can vote.  Every addition to the list of eligible voters was an attempt to remove a level of elitism from this country.. to give everyone their fair voice in choosing leaders and laws.

And as such, isn’t California’s level of effort in their voter’s guide the minimal level of effort we should expect from all the states?  How else can we provide everyone the best chance of making some kind of informed decision on their own (less any influence from commercialized media)… rather than becoming just a number in someone’s politically slanted “get out the vote” campaign?

So, kudos California.  The rest of the country may try to twist the term “progressive” as a slant against you, but the voter’s guide you produce is a model for democracy that I hope the rest of the country will adopt.

Finally: Why did I say that the occupation of the candidate running for office (listed on California’s ballot) is important?  It reveals a little about why a politician will liberally use the phrases “protect the working person” and “protect the middle class” and “create jobs” as the ever-repeatable buzzwords–and nothing changes once they get elected.  If you look carefully over the ballot in California and pay attention to the occupations of the candidates, you will see a predominance of two professions for all the candidates: business owner and lawyer.  Even some of the candidates that have government job titles (for example: Gang Homicide Prosecutor) have a simple meaning behind them: lawyer.

Over 95% of the elected members of a legislature, both at the State and Federal levels, are business owners or lawyers.  Lawyers are usually business owners as well.  And those that are not will eventually move to a partnership (part owner) or a business of their own.

So why in the world would would business owners ever vote for laws that favored employees over business owners?  Think about it.

The Los Angeles County (California) Voter’s Guide   Fall 2012 election

Lake County (Florida) Voter’s Guide    Fall 2012 election