Archives for the month of: December, 2011

California Secretary of State Debra Bowen has certified the first initiative to qualify for the November 6, 2012, ballot.  If it is approved by voters, the initiative–known by proponents as “Paycheck Protection” and opponents as “Paycheck Deception”–would restrict political fundraising by prohibiting use of payroll-deducted funds for political purposes.

It’s time to set the record straight on the origins of this deceptive ballot measure, which traces its history to anti-tax crusader, and Republican insider, Grover Norquist.

In the late 1990s, Norquist and his DC-based Americans for Tax Reform organization backed several conservative initiatives on statewide ballots, including so-called paycheck “protection” measures. The major source of his funding for his efforts, it was later revealed,was the Republican National Party.  In 1993, Norquist had authored a mock policy memo (fictitiously dated “November 9, 1996”) addressed to “Republican Congressional Leaders.”  His fictitious memo detailed the GOP’s hard won “success” in the 1996 elections.  Noting the electoral power of initiatives, Norquist wrote, “I believe the wave of initiative elections in 1992 and 1994 paved the way for Republican electoral victories this year [1996].”  He highlighted how initiatives limiting legislative terms, cutting taxes and government spending, as well as anti-crime, victims rights, and parental rights ballot measures, brought fiscal and “social conservative Republican voters to the polls.”

Republican leaders apparently were convinced by Norquist’s electoral prediction.  In October 1996, the Republican National Committee (RNC) quietly contributed $4.6 million in soft money to ATR to promote federal candidates by broadcasting issue ads. While Norquist’s nonprofit did not have to disclose its subsequent expenditures, a congressional investigation (Minority Report) into campaign finance abuses in the 1990s found that ATR acted “as an alter ego of the Republican National Committee [RNC] in promoting the Republican agenda and Republican candidates, while shielding itself and its contributors from the accountability required of campaign organizations.”

Norquist’s ATR subsequently funneled a substantial amount of the RNC money to issue groups in California, Colorado, Oregon, and Nevada that were sponsoring paycheck protection ballot measures.

For example, in 1998, ATR was a major contributor to the sponsors of Oregon’s Measure 26, a paycheck “protection” initiative that qualified for Oregon’s November, 1998 ballot.  ATR also helped to finance paycheck “deception” measures in Nevada and Colorado, but they were stymied by the courts in Nevada and stalled by a union-led counterproposition in Colorado.

Earlier in 1998, Norquist’s ATR successfully spearheaded the financing of a California ballot measure designed specifically to weaken organized labor. During the crucial petition gathering phase of the campaign, ATR transferred $441,000 to the Campaign Reform Initiative in California, one of four issue committees advocating Proposition 226, a paycheck “protection” measure.  In the end, California voters defeated the measure at the polls, in large part because labor unions spent over $23 million fighting the June 1998 primary initiative.

Rather than paycheck protection, the history of these ballot measures is steeped in deception.

For more background on paycheck “protection”/”deception” ballot measures, see Daniel A. Smith. 2004. “Peeling Away the Populist Rhetoric: Toward a Taxonomy of Anti-Tax Ballot Initiatives,” Public Budgeting and Finance 24 (4): 88-110, and Elizabeth Garrett and Daniel A. Smith. 2005. “Veiled Political Actors and Campaign Disclosure Laws in Direct Democracy,” Election Law Journal 4 (4) 295-328.

So says the Pew Center on the States.

Florida ranks 7th overall in the PEW study, receiving “excellent” marks on “content” and solid marks for “lookup tools,” but it ranks in the bottom half of the states when it comes to the “usability” of the Secretary of State’s website.

Here’s a link to PEW’s evaluation of Florida, which is excerpted below:

 

Researchers assessed state election websites for the Pew Center on the States between May-November 2010 using detailed criteria evaluating the content, lookup tools, and usability. Websites may have changed since they were assessed. See methodology (PDF).

Strengths include:

  • Comprehensive voter registration and ballot information, including details on registration eligibility and residency requirements, deadlines, forms, and information for college students, felons, the homeless, hospitalized voters, and voters residing in long-term-care facilities.
  • Concise, quickly absorbed text used throughout the website, with easy-to-scan bullet points and hyperlinks.
  • Lookup tools that allow voters to view their registration status, polling place location, sample ballots, and absentee ballot status.
  • Comprehensive listings of candidates and candidate party affiliations, contact information, and incumbency status.
  • Full texts, summaries, and nonpartisan analyses of statewide ballot measures.
  • Campaign finance data links for state and federal candidates.
  • Election results in a section that displays them in user-friendly ways, such as by county, in percentages, and with maps.
  • Text resizing function helps visually impaired users.

Recommended improvements include:

  • Create a section of information geared toward people with disabilities (36 states offer).
  • Use more specific informational labels for links to guide users to content from the home page, rather than vague labels such as “Voter Information.”
  • Improve navigation throughout the website so that it is logical and consistent on each page and makes important information prominent and accessible.
  • To avoid confusion, place lookup tools on a page that does not look like a different site.
  • Improve the lookup tool’s accessibility for visitors with screen-reader software, which cannot “see” the squiggly words (CAPTCHA System) that a user must enter.
  • Explain how to obtain a replacement if a requested absentee ballot does not arrive in the mail (19 states offer), or is lost or damaged (18 offer).
  • Provide a tutorial on how to complete a ballot (38 states offer).
  • Offer instructions for people with disabilities on how to use voting machines at polling places (33 states offer).
  • Provide a lookup tool for voters to check the status of their provisional ballot (19 states offer).
  • Present important information in HTML format rather than in PDF documents, which are more difficult to read and search online.

Noteworthy Feature: A “Candidate Tracking System” tracks candidates throughout the election process, describing their status, campaign finance activity, personal photos, and contact data. This information is updated regularly as candidates file and update their information.

Initial Quick Fix: Include a noticeable link from the state website home page to the voting information website.

Summary: Florida’s site scores highly and provides excellent voting information, including four out of five recommended lookup tools. Improved navigation and accessibility for voters with visual disabilities would enhance usability.

http://election.dos.state.fl.us/index.shtml was assessed for content, lookup tools, and usability.

Daily Show correspondent John Oliver investigates Amazon.com’s effort to use a ballot measure to overturn a a state law requiring online retailers to pay sales tax in the state.

California’s foul-mouthed Democratic Party chairman, John Burton, steals the show.

Over the past decade, I’ve written a considerable amount about the “educative effects” of ballot measures, including the potential spillover effects initiatives and referendums can have on candidate campaigns.

Several “fetal personhood” ballot measures currently are being circulated in numerous states by Personhood USA.  If they manage to qualify for the ballot, they could have a very damaging effect on the eventual GOP nominee, as several candidates have taken affirmative positions on the extreme issue, notwithstanding the lack of popular support.

Most recently, Newt Gingrich proposed a national fetal personhood bill, which is modeled after the ballot measures soundly defeated by voters in Colorado and Mississippi.  Gingrich, Mitt Romney, and other hopefuls for the Republican nomination have tied their GOP primary fortunes to the idea that personhood begins at the moment of fertilization.

What the GOP candidates might simply view as symbolic politics during a primary campaign in order to cater to the whims of conservative voters might have real consequences next November if the fetal personhood measures manage to qualify for the ballot in some battleground states, including Florida.

That is, if the Democrats make it an issue.  Recall that in 2004, Democratic Party nominee, John Kerry, refused to touch the issue of raising the minimum wage with a 10 foot poll when he campaigned in Florida. The measure, which was on the ballot in that key state, ended up passing with 71 percent of the vote, garnering support from voters across the political spectrum. Kerry could have easily tied his campaign message to the wildly popular issue, but failed to do so.  Judging by the results in Colorado and Mississippi, Democrats will likely not forgo that opportunity if the fetal personhood measures qualify for the ballot.

According to a story in USA Today, Chris Cate, the director of communications for the Florida Department of State, continues to misinform the public about the total hours of early in-person (EIP) voting hours that are required under HB1355.  He claims that although the number of days has been shortened, the number of EIP voting hours  remains the same, and says that there is no systematic attempt to suppress any group of voters.

Yet, as Politifact has documented, that claim regarding the total number of EIP voting hours under HB1355 is “Mostly False.”

In fact, the total number of early in-person voting hours that county Supervisors of Elections must remain open under HB1355 has been cut in half.

In addition to putting restrictions on voter registration drives, the casting of provisional ballots, and several other voting and elections issues, HB1355 shortened the window of EIP voting from 15 to eight days. Under the new law, county Supervisors of Elections have the discretion to offer between six and 12 hours of early voting each day—amounting to a minimum of 48 hours and a maximum of 96 hours.

Early voting under HB1355 is to commence on a Saturday, 10 days prior to Election Day, and must end on a Saturday, three days prior to Election Day. Most notably, HB1355 prohibits county election supervisors from offering EIP on the Sunday immediately before the election. In the 2008 general election, 10 Supervisors of Elections—including some of the state’s most populated and racially and ethnically diverse counties—offered EIP on the Sunday immediately prior to Election Day.

In short, HB1355 has reduced the number of EIP voting days, has cut in half the required number of EIP voting hours, and has eliminated EIP voting on the final Sunday before Election Day.

That’s what Dan Schnur, the director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California, told Adam Nagourney in a front page article, “In California, Asking Voters to Raise Taxes,” in today’s New York Times.

According to Schnur, “The November 2012 ballot is going to be the political equivalent of bumper car. What we have seen historically is that voters who are overwhelmed or overloaded with things tend to vote ‘no’ on everything.”

While it sounds convincing, Mr. Schnur’s statement is not really backed up by the data.

In California, between 1911 and 2010, voters considered 1180 statewide initiatives, popular referendums, and legislative referendums, passing 666 of them, for a passage rate of 56%.  When it comes to statewide initiatives, popular referendums, and legislative referendums on the ballot in general elections, Californians have approved 491 of the 893 measures.

Here’s a graph of the number of general election statewide ballot measures by year in California, and the accompanying passage rates, over time:

It’s pretty hard to discern a clear relationship over the years that suggests that an increased number of measures on the statewide ballot leads to a decreased percentage of measures adopted by the voters.

Here’s another look at the same data, using a scatterplot:

Again, there’s not a very clear pattern over the last century when looking at the number of statewide ballot measures in a general election and the overall passage rate of those measures. As the linear regression equation indicates, the relationship is quite weak. (And no, that’s not a data entry error: there really were 47 measures on California’s statewide ballot in 1914).

So, what are we to make of Mr. Schnur’s comment, in light of the data?

More measures on the ballot does not lead necessarily to lower overall support for ballot propositions. California voters don’t get “overloaded.”

California voters are not stupid, and are certainly not “dumber than chimps” as Skip Lupia rightly notes. They are able to pick and choose down the ballot, even very long ones, making binary choices that best match their own preferences. It is essential, of course, that voters have informational cues, or heuristics (such as campaign spending on a ballot measure that indicates support or opposition by vested interests) which can help voters with their civic duty when serving as lawmakers for a day.

So bring on the ballot measures in 2012, even those raising taxes on the wealthy to pay for educational and energy programs. Californians are up for the challenge.

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