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  •   Voter Confusion on a Hot Controversy


    By David S. Broder
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Sunday, May 31, 1998; Page A04

    DAVIS, Calif.—In the coffee shop across the street from the Avid Reader bookstore in this college town, David Busse, a University of California psychology student, is pondering the choices he will face Tuesday on the primary election ballot.

    For the first time, instead of registered Republicans being handed a roster of GOP aspirants and Democratic voters a list of their party's candidates, California's "blanket primary" ballot will include all contenders of all parties, big and small. From the 17 names he will see vying for governor, Busse is pretty sure he will select Lt. Gov. Gray Davis (D). Echoing Davis's television ads, Busse says, "He has the most political experience of all the candidates."


    Over the course of the 1998 campaign, David S. Broder is examining the politics of ballot initiative campaigns – the people behind them, the money that's spent, and the issues. Does this increasingly popular way of legislating represent democracy at its best, or is it a menace to representative government?


    The initiatives Californians will vote on Tuesday:

    Ballot measures

    Proposition 219

    Requires state and local ballot measures to apply in the entire jurisdiction, regardless of how different areas voted.

    Court consolidation

    Proposition 220

    Allows consolidation of superior and municipal courts in a county if approved by a majority of the courts' judges.

    Judicial officers

    Proposition 221

    Grants a state commission authority to discipline subordinate judicial officers according to the same standards as judges.

    Murder of peace officer

    Proposition 222

    Makes second-degree murder of a peace officer punishable by life in prison without parole, if aggravating factors are present. Convict cannot earn credits to reduce sentence.

    School spending

    Proposition 223

    Fines school districts that spend more than 5 percent of funds on administrative costs.

    Design and engineering

    Proposition 224

    Restricts state-funded design and engineering contracts, requires cost comparison between private contractors and public employees, and sets requirements for competitive bidding.

    Term limits

    Proposition 225

    Directs state and federal legislators to support a constitutional amendment limiting terms in the U.S. Congress.

    Campaign finance

    Proposition 226

    Requires employee's or union member's permission to withhold wages or dues for political contributions. Prohibits foreign contributions to state and local candidates.

    English in schools

    Proposition 227

    Requires public schooling to be in English, unless parents request otherwise and show certain circumstances. Funds short-term English immersion for children.

    SOURCE: California Secretary of State

    Ask Busse about Proposition 226, the most heavily advertised of the nine statewide initiatives at the bottom of Tuesday's ballot, and he confesses, "I'm not sure what it's all about." And then he tries to recall what he has gleaned from the $20 million in TV expenditures by opponents and backers of 226. "As it is now," Busse says, "unions have to get permission to donate money to candidates. Under this, they wouldn't. I'm not sure that's a good idea."

    A thoughtful response, except that Busse has it backward. The measure, backed by Gov. Pete Wilson (R) and national conservative groups and fiercely opposed by the unions, would impose a new requirement – annual, written authorizations from each union member – for labor's political spending.

    Busse is smart enough to be thriving in the top rung of the California higher education system, and his confusion is not exceptional. An evening of door-to-door interviews in this highly educated Central Valley community and an afternoon of similar conversations with Californians passing through the airport serving the state capital of Sacramento turn up many examples of voters who are uncertain or misinformed about the most controversial initiative on the ballot.

    The confusion could be critical to the outcome of the nationally watched referendum. A Field Institute poll published Friday in several papers said 45 percent of the likely voters support 226 and 47 percent are opposed, a statistical tie. Mervin Field, the poll's founder, says uncertainty almost always helps opponents of an initiative. "When voters have any doubt in mind," he commented Friday, "they vote no."

    Field said the confusion factor is high this year because of a flurry of ads urging "No" votes on four separate but similarly numbered propositions: 223 on education funding, 224 on contracting-out of state services, 226 on union dues and 227 on bilingual education. "When you're dealing with three digits and four initiatives are getting heavy play, you get confusion," the pollster said.

    Christie Wyman, the wife of a government employee, is such a voter. She says, "I've heard the ads on the TV and I'm confused. I'm going to have to read the voter guide."

    She is referring to the blue-and-white ballot pamphlet mailed to every household with a registered voter by Secretary of State Bill Jones. The basic version consists of 76 pages of closely printed information about statewide candidates and initiatives, objective descriptions and analyses, plus statements of support and opposition. There are 34 pages devoted to the statewide initiatives alone.

    The voter guide is the last refuge for conscientious voters, battered by an unending barrage of 30-second spots every time they turn on the TV. But as Steve Forbes, owner of the Avid Reader and a Davis city councilman, says, "There aren't many [voters] who do what I do. I refuse to get information from TV. I rely on what's in print," including the voter guide.

    Whatever their sources, many voters clearly have figured out what they want to do on the banner contests for governor and U.S. senator and on the two most publicized initiatives, Propositions 226 and 227. The latter would end bilingual education programs and mandate a year of English immersion for Spanish-speaking youngsters. Polls show it winning.

    On the union dues issue, voters with clear preferences often echo the language of the TV ads. Janet Das, a Gold River housewife, says, "I don't think it's fair for them to use anyone's union dues for political contributions without permission. I'll vote that way." Then, in a comment worrisome to supporters of 226, she adds, "I'm not sure if that is yes or no. I'll have to look carefully how it's phrased."

    The saturation TV campaign mounted by the union side has implanted its message almost verbatim in some voters' minds. John Mayfield of Green Valley says, "I want to read further, but it sounds like a scam to me. It looks like it's for workers' rights, but it's really designed to break the unions. It's not what it claims to be."

    While persuading people like Mayfield, the "no" side, which has advertised much more heavily than the proponents of 226, may get some votes from people who've heard that they should vote no, but have mixed up the effects of such a vote.

    Among the two dozen voters interviewed here and in Sacramento, three, including Busse, seemed to have the issue backward.

    Ramsey Dowell, a federal auditor in Sacramento, says, "I'm against it. If I want my money to go to a particular candidate, I should decide, not the union leaders. They should ask my permission."

    Roger Matson, a Stockton retiree, says, "I'll vote no. The money belongs to the people who work for it. The union shouldn't be able to use it for its own purposes."

    All those interviewed were asked simply if they had heard or read anything about Proposition 226, the initiative affecting union dues and political contributions, and what was their opinion of it. If they look closely at the 143-word official title and summary that appear on the ballot, people like Busse, Dowell and Matson may realize their mistake.

    But a strategist on the "no" side said, "We're not against confusion."

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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