Most election years see some kind of battle over the way propositions are worded on the ballot. But rarely has one of these fights been more vital to the eventual outcome than the one now in progress about the wording of Proposition 8, the November initiative seeking to prohibit same-sex marriages.
You might ask why wording should be so crucial this time. After all, every voter gets the chance to see far more than the short descriptions included on the ballot for all propositions.
And yet… there’s always been the question of who actually reads the voluminous proposition pamphlets sent out before each election by the Secretary of State, booklets that include arguments pro and con, full texts of every proposed new law and some discussion of financial impact.
The bottom line is that no one knows for sure how many voters read all that, or the numerous newspaper and Internet summaries that also accompany every statewide vote. There are also TV commercials, ubiquitous in the month or so before every vote.
The closest anyone ever came to figuring this out was a 1993 study by the California Policy Seminar for the UC Davis Institute of Governmental Affairs. The study indicated that readers of the official booklet were overwhelmingly whiter and wealthier than the overall electorate. More than half of those who read the pamphlet had college degrees, with one-fourth having advanced degrees. Fully 88 percent had at least some college education.
Essentially, these people do not match the overall demographic of California voters. They are not the average voter.
But there’s one thing every voter will see, and it will be seen in the final moments before votes are cast: the description of the proposition that’s printed on the ballot itself.
The state Attorney General’s office writes this material, and in his original ballot description, Democratic Attorney General Jerry Brown wrote the Proposition 8 summary this way: :Amends the California Constitution to provide that only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California.”
That was before a state Supreme Court ruling allowed gays as much right to marry as anyone else. With that decision in mind – it was one he favored – Brown revised the ballot language to say that Proposition 8 “Eliminates the right of same-sex couples to marry.”
It’s the difference between stating something positively or negatively. Plus, the history of ballot propositions is that voters rarely opt to take away rights, while they sometimes choose to expand them.
Here’s the language of a couple of past propositions that passed: “Protects transportation funding for traffic congestion relief, safety improvements… And, “will provide needed funding to relieve public school overcrowding…”
Here’s how the language went on a couple of losers: “Bars state/local governments from condemning or damaging private property to promote other private projects…” And “Prohibits using public employee union dues for political contributions…”
These brief samples were not selected scientifically, but they demonstrate that when the ballot language is positive, measures have a better chance of passage than when it’s negative.
So it was no wonder the Yes-on-8 campaign immediately filed suit in an effort to preserve the original ballot language for their initiative. But there’s little chance this effort will succeed.
“The Attorney General has the right, even the duty, to change the ballot language based on things that might occur during the time between when an initiative is first circulated and when it goes up for a vote,” says Robert Stern, president of the non-partisan Center for Governmental Studies and a former chief lawyer for the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission.
How important might this be to the fate of Proposition 8? Stern estimates that 90 percent of voters will have their minds made up about it before they enter the polls, based on their reading, word-of-mouth, TV commercials and personal belief.
“But perhaps 10 percent will make up their mind right at the polls,” he said. “For them, that language might be very important. And I expect this to be a very close vote, which would magnify the importance of the language.”
This is why the Yes-on-8 campaign will fight as hard as it can as long as it can for the more positive language it prefers to see on the ballot.
For this is one arena where words might mean the difference between victory and defeat.