Published January 14, 2015
It's the stem-cell, three-strikes, closed-primary, DNA-arrest, Indian-gambling and lawsuit-limiting election.
So are a lot of voters here.
Choosing a president is easy this year. But Californians are facing a catalog of ballot questions so challenging — 16 in all, more than any other state — that virtually everyone at one early-voting location was clutching a cheat sheet to keep the numbers and issues straight.
Which was the one that would raise taxes on millionaires?
Is the governor supporting Proposition 62, or is it 60?
"I find it incredibly confusing, and I'm resentful," said Los Angeles artist Shelley Adler, who was shuffling toward the voting booth at a downtown library last week. "I'm very smart, and it's difficult for me."
With conflicting information in TV ads and pouring into mailboxes, "It's almost a stab in the dark," said school teacher Paula Scarborough, who was consulting scribbled notes while waiting to vote. "I always feel like I'm being fooled."
It's not the first time voters have faced an Election Day puzzle under California's system of direct democracy, in which anyone who collects enough signatures can place a proposal on the ballot.
Actually, this year is far from the worst.
The record for a cluttered ballot was set in 1914, when voters had to sift through 48 questions. Since 1912, state elections have averaged 18 ballot questions, according to the Initiative & Referendum Institute at the University of Southern California.
Over the years voters have considered everything from whether gay teachers should be outlawed from schools (no, 1978) or if it should be illegal to sell horses for meat (yes, 1998).
But even this year's tally of questions — some of them on the same subject — can leave voters perplexed.
So where to turn for help?
If you glance at the text of Proposition 71, which would authorize the state to borrow $3 billion for stem cell research, you'll learn that "pluripotent stem cells may be derived from somatic cell nuclear transfer."
The text of proposition 1-A, which would discourage the state from raiding local government funds, makes clear that "a suspension of subparagraph (A) shall not result in a total ad valorem property tax revenue loss to all local agencies within a county that exceeds 8 percent of the total amount of ad valorem property tax revenues that were allocated among all local agencies within that county for the fiscal year immediately preceding the fiscal year for which subparagraph (A) is suspended."
There are 126 words in the text of Proposition 60, but after reading it you learn that the proposal essentially does nothing — it affirms the primary-election system the state already uses.
Why? It's an apparent attempt to undercut rival Proposition 62, which would dump political party primaries in state elections.
"When you read them, they are never really clear," said Deborah Weiser, a Los Angeles attorney who was waiting to vote last week.
"Most people are focused on who's going to be president," Weiser added. As for understanding the small print in ballot questions, "There are just too many — unless you're obsessed."
The 16 questions cover issues as complex as stem cell research (Proposition 71), allowing the state to collect a DNA sample from anyone arrested for a felony (Proposition 69), limiting lawsuits that accuse businesses of engaging in unfair competition (Proposition 64), rolling back aspects of the state's three-strikes sentencing law (Proposition 66) and allowing race tracks and card rooms to operate 30,000 slot machines in six counties (Proposition 68).
Survey research has suggested that many voters do not understand the details of propositions when they vote. Some experts think a dense ballot can portend a higher failure rate.
"When in doubt, people tend to vote no," said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a professor of political science at USC. "It's a tried and true axiom."
"I always take my sample ballot — I could never remember," she added.