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Voters don't trust each other, find ballot confusing

Despite feeling generally enthusiastic about the November election, voters for the first time in one major California survey said they don't trust their fellow voters to make the right decisions.

According to a survey released yesterday by the Public Policy Institute of California, less than half of voters say they’re confident others will make the right decisions on Election Day. Only 35 percent said they had a "fair amount of confidence" in other voters, while an even smaller slice of the electorate – 9 percent – said they trusted other voters "a great deal."

Combined, this was the lowest level in the history of the PPIC poll.

Despite questioning the discretion of their neighbors, most voters said they were happy they had the choice to vote on the ballot measures, and two-thirds were satisfied with the initiative process in general.

"Californians did see important reasons to vote," said Mark Baldassare, PPIC president and CEO. "They are not in a mood to spend money – but the vote on Proposition 25 (making it easier to pass the state budget) shows that they are in a mood to make change."

The PPIC survey found that support from independents was key in the victories of Gov.-elect Jerry Brown and Sen. Barbara Boxer, and that 81 percent of voters disapproved of the state Legislature’s job performance. Full results can be found here.

The survey also found the state’s information guide and sample ballot was the most common place people turned to for help on voting. The Internet came in a somewhat distant second place.

However helpful these resources were, two-thirds of voters said the wording of the initiatives was too complicated or confusing (32 percent strongly agree, 35 percent somewhat agree).

Proposition 24 was probably one of the most complicated of all the ballot measures. It failed by a significant margin of 16 percent. When asked, people mostly frequently said they didn’t know why they had voted against the initiative.

The ballot measure would have rolled back a series of tax code changes recently agreed to by the Legislature and the governor during budget negotiations. Trying to understand these changes is no easy task, let alone the implications.

Here’s language from the state’s voter information guide [PDF] describing a recent change to the way we tax multi-state businesses:

A law approved by the Legislature and the Governor in 2009 will give multistate businesses a new way to determine how much of their income that California taxes. Starting in 2011 under this new law, most multistate businesses will be able to choose each year between two formulas to set the level of income California can tax. Businesses’ two options will be: (1) the three-factor formula currently in use (described above), or (2) a new formula based only on the portion of their overall national sales that are in California (known as the “single sales” factor). A business typically will select the formula that minimizes its California taxes. A business would be allowed to switch back and forth between the two formulas.

Even if voters take the time to read the detailed description of a measure like this one, it also takes a special understanding of the tax code milieu to make a nuanced decision on whether to repeal such a provision or not.

One reason why people may not have had confidence in their fellow voters might have had less to do with the initiative process in general and more to do with the complexity of this year’s measures.

Kim Alexander, president of the nonprofit California Voter Foundation, said this was one of the most challenging ballots she’d ever seen.

“Usually there are a number of straightforward measures that we would consider to be water cooler fodder.” With the exception of Proposition 19, she said, “the rest of them required the voters to have a pretty detailed understanding of existing California law and public policy in order to make an informed choice."

While Proposition 19, which would have legalized the recreational use of marijuana, didn’t sport the technical jargon or detail of some of the other initiatives, it may have been a hard choice for some voters.

Prop. 19 [PDF] would have left it up to “local governments to authorize, regulate, and tax various commercial marijuana-related activities.” And it would have reserved the right, “whether or not local governments engaged in this regulation,” for California as a state to “regulate the commercial production of marijuana.”

The pro-legalization camp was vehemently split over this ambiguity. A sizable number of people make and have made their livelihoods growing and selling pot in California for decades. And many were afraid the loose language of Prop. 19 would usher in an era of expensive growing permits squeezing out all but big business.

Eleven percent of people who voted no said they favor legalization in general, a significant number considering the measure went down by only 6 points.

Alexander says that traditionally polls say voters trust the initiative process more than the legislative process. “If that’s no longer true we need to have a serious discussion about initiative reform,” she said.



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