It's an election year, in case you hadn’t noticed. And that means we’re all being bombarded with messages about ballot measures up for consideration this November, from bringing back affirmative action to restricting parole.
KQED listener Colin Nichols wanted to know more about it. So he put the following question to the Bay Curious team:
"Who gets to write the arguments for and against the ballot measures in the state's official voter information guide?" Nichols asked. "How are they picked? And why does Gary Wesley write so many of them?"
The Official Voter Information Guide summarizes each ballot measure, gives some context and offers the main arguments for and against them — all in one place.
It comes in 10 languages — English, Spanish, Chinese, Hindi, Japanese, Khmer, Korean, Tagalog, Thai and Vietnamese — as well as several formats, including large print and audio.
The Secretary of State’s office mails the paper version out to over 11 million households, and depending on the number of measures on the ballot, it costs anywhere between $6 million and $14 million to produce each time.
California has been publishing an official voter guide in some form since the early 1900s (San Francisco's UC Hastings College of Law provides public access online to all of the state voter guides dating back to 1911!) It’s the largest mailing that the Secretary of State’s office puts out. And California is among only a dozen or so U.S. states to offer this resource.
"We often have Californians who move away and say, 'Oh, my gosh, I don't have a voter information guide in my state. How do I make this happen?'" said Joanna Southard, who oversees the production of the guide each election cycle in her role as assistant chief of elections for the Secretary of State's office. "'I miss it!'"
Putting The Guide Together
Southard said about four months before the election, her office collects information for the guide from four sources.
The first is internal: Southard and her team write up some election basics, like how and where to vote.
Next, there’s the Attorney General, who’s responsible for writing the ballot language — namely, the ballot titles and summaries.
Last, the Secretary of State's office solicits arguments for each of the measures: one argument in favor, one argument against and rebuttals to each. So there are four in total for each measure.
There are prescribed word limits for these texts. The for and against arguments get 500 words each, and the rebuttals get 250.
The bottom line is that anyone can submit an argument for or against a ballot measure. The Secretary of State posts the propositions on their website, and people have a little less than three weeks to submit arguments.
How Arguments Are Selected
Not everybody who sends in an argument gets picked.
"There is, you know, a preference and priority outlined in our state elections code," Southard said.
The hierarchy is complicated. But generally speaking, members of the state Legislature get first dibs on writing measures they put on the ballot. For initiatives and referendum measures that require voter signatures to qualify, the people pushing the proposition get first shot.
Generally, that same pecking order also holds for arguments against propositions.
But there’s one difference: Way down there at the bottom of the pile, individual citizens occasionally get a shot at writing a "No" argument. But that only happens when no one else above them in the hierarchy does it.
"We tend to get more submissions for the arguments against," Southard said.
And this is where Gary Wesley comes in.
"I would say he's unique, especially as an individual," Southard said. "He always has something to say and submits an argument generally each and every time."
Wesley is a lawyer in Silicon Valley. Perhaps best described as the Official California Voter Information Guide's 'Chief Naysayer,' he believes firmly that any official California voter guide should have arguments against propositions too.
"I made it my task to ensure that California voters received arguments against all statewide propositions - not just propositions that buck and draw opposition from special interest groups," he wrote in an email to KQED.
That’s why over the past 40 years, Wesley has submitted and gotten published dozens of “No” arguments.
"Sometimes he's the only one that has submitted an argument," Southard said. "And we would hate for there not to be any argument."
“Thanks but no," Wesley wrote in an email. "No argument of mine is in the current voter guide. Maybe next time I have arguments in there.” (You can read his contributions to the 2018 voter guide, the ones Colin Nichols noticed, here.)
Despite the fact Wesley was outranked in the publication hierarchy for arguments this time around, Southard said she appreciates that Wesley takes democracy so seriously.
"We want both sides represented," said Southard. "It is a nonpartisan publication."
How Neutral Is the Voter Guide?
Voters should be aware that the arguments for and against ballot measures are opinions.
As the voter guide clearly states: "Please note that the arguments for and against each measure are the opinions of the authors and have not been checked for accuracy by any official agency."
But the titles and summaries for each ballot measures are supposed to be written in a completely neutral way. Accusations of partisanship on the part of the state's Attorney General are common.
The current California Attorney General, Xavier Becerra, was sued six times this summer for how he worded some of the ballot measure titles and summaries.
"This year, the titling and the summary, which are prepared by a political appointee, the Attorney General, have been done in a leading and I would say somewhat deceptive and tendentious way," said John Matsusaka, a professor of business and law at the University of Southern California.
The lawsuits against the Attorney General are nothing new, they happen almost every year. Though this year there was a particularly high number of them.
The courts nearly always side with the Attorney General on matters of wording. As Sacramento Superior Court Judge Laurie Earl wrote in several of her rulings this summer: "The Court is not a copy editor."
"What should really happen is the Attorney General should do his job in a nonpartisan way," Matsusaka said. "Or maybe what we need to do is to take the job out of the hands of partisan officials and say we're going to put this in the hands of a nonpartisan office. I could imagine putting in the hands of Legislative Analyst."
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