Money a Huge Factor in Defeat of Proposition 46

The central fight in this complex initiative is whether to raise California’s 39-year-old cap on the amount of money that courts can award for pain and suffering to a victim of medical malpractice.  (Getty Images)
The central fight in this complex initiative is whether to raise California’s 39-year-old cap on the amount of money that courts can award for pain and suffering to a victim of medical malpractice. (Getty Images)

Update, 10:50 p.m.
By far the most expensive race in the state this election was Proposition 46. The three-part “patient safety measure" inspired close to $60 million in spending from the No side, seven times the spending on the Yes side. Medical malpractice insurers wanted to make sure this one went down – and early voter returns indicate that it will.

“It’s apparent that people are being influenced by biased advertising,” says Daniel G. Newman, president and co-founder of MapLight, a nonpartisan research organization that tracks the influence of money on politics. “These political ads have very little to do with the substance of the measure. They have very simple messaging that is often misleading.”

The key piece of Prop. 46 would have adjusted the cap on medical malpractice awards for inflation, from $250,000 – an amount set in 1975 – to $1.1 million. This would have applied only to pain and suffering awards. Victims of medical malpractice, and their lawyers, pushed to raise the cap because they say it limits victims’ ability to find representation, especially when that victim is elderly or a child and cannot claim lost wages or other economic damages. Insurers said this would drive up the costs of premiums.

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The other two pieces of Prop. 46 focused more directly on doctors. The measure would have required doctors to check a statewide database of drug prescriptions before issuing new prescriptions for narcotics, and would have required them to undergo random drug and alcohol testing.

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Regardless of where voters’ own economic and consumer interests fell, the majority voted no, says Newman, because of the flood of ads produced by the No side.

“It’s as if you had a giant wall-sized TV screen on your left and a tiny cellphone screen on your right. And you as a voter are in the middle trying to make a decision,” he says. “You’re going to be overwhelmingly influenced by the giant TV screen, or the side that spends an overwhelming amount of money.”

Early polls for Prop. 46 showed strong support in favor -- 58 percent of likely voters said they would vote yes. That support dwindled after campaign ads began in earnest, and ultimately fizzled to about a third of voters by Election Day.