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Ballot parties help voters wade through this year’s pile of propositions

Photo by Jürgen Klemm

Back in 1898, San Francisco and Vallejo were among the first cities in the nation to exercise direct democracy, where specific policy questions are put before voters. 

Some years there are two or three propositions on the ballot, other times it could be up to 20 or 30. This year, San Francisco voters have to make decisions on 25 City ballot measures and  17 state propositions. Throw in the candidate races, and it adds up to 50 questions that will affect the City’s future. So, how do voters get their heads around all of this?

Colleen Kinder, who was in at City Hall to cast her ballot, said this year was a little too much for her. Kinder said the process demands a lot of education from voters. “I felt like I should have done more homework and I left a number of things blank because I didn’t feel equipped to answer them,” she added. Kinder knows about the voter information pamphlet that comes with the ballot in the mail, but she did not receive it. “When I came here, I wish there was a way to get more information,” Kinder concludes.

Thickest voter information pamphlet in history

The San Francisco Voter Information Pamphlet & Sample Ballot is put together right here inside City Hall. John Arntz, the director of the Department of Elections, says they do get some feedback from the voters about the high number of propositions. “We don’t get that the are too many measures, we get that the book is too big,” Arntz explains.

This year, the San Francisco Department of Elections sent out almost half a million voter guides in four languages. Arntz says that never before has the ballot measure pamphlet been this thick. The title of each of the propositions, the ballot questions, the digest, the financial impact on City budget, proponents’ and opponents’ arguments, paid arguments - altogether make up an an impressive 316 pages. And that’s only City propositions. California’s state ballot measure pamphlet is another 222 pages.

“Most of the pages are from what’s called paid arguments,” says Arntz. In San Francisco people can submit an argument for or against a local measure. They pay a submission fee and they pay a per word fee. The number of measures does affect the size of the book, but more so the number of paid arguments associated with the measure. “For this election this is the biggest book in the City’s history as far as the number of pages. And it’s all content that is necessary either according to state or local election law.”

Who has the time to research 50 ballot measures alone?

One way to work your way through all of this information is team up with friends, divide the different propositions among each other to study and have what some people call a “ballot party.” David Boyer and his friends have been throwing ballot parties for the last four or five elections. They call it The Klown Klub with its Jankytown Slate Kard. Boyer says it began because  they lacked the time to research all of the propositions, but nevertheless wanted to be educated. “So the idea was that we would split them up between anywhere between 8-12 people. Split them up and a person is responsible for 4 instead of 48.”

This year it took them five hours. Even though it was a lot of work, Boyer says it was also a lot of fun. But he understands if some people choose to leave these questions undecided and the ballot empty. “If you really want the people to participate, what seems to be the idea of ballot propositions and state measures, limit it at 15 and people may be able to participate,” Boyer adds. “But if you run out of alphabet letters and you are up to RR, there is a problem.”

Voters feel the process of participatory democracy is being misused

Cory Powell-McCoy is a member of a couple democratic clubs and filled in the ballot at home with the help of the internet. He really put his time into getting his head around all of these propositions. He says that there there are quite a number of items that play political games. “I think that is an ongoing issue here in San Francisco, where leaders are more concerned about getting jabs in at each other than they are concerned with moving forward with the business of the City,” Powell-McCoy says.

One aspect of participatory democracy is that people get to vote directly on laws. The other idea is that voters get to put forward their own ideas that could become laws. But out of this years 25 San Francisco propositions - almost all of them were put on the ballot by elected officials. None by the people. Powell-McCoy says that if someone is unsatisfied with how the ballot measure system works, the only way to let the legislators know is through the election itself: “Every time these leaders are up for re-election, I remember these things, you know. I really do.”

David Boyer agrees that it seems like the system is being misused. “I am all for participatory democracy, but at some point, it has got out of hand. It has basically become the purview of lobbyists and special interests and specific people with very specific agendas,” Boyer says.

Crosscurrents Elections