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A Political Junkie's Hobby: Explaining It All to Voters

October 24, 2004|Steve Chawkins | Times Staff Writer

Surely Hiram Johnson, that thundering progressive, didn't think it would take Steve Friedl to make his government reform movement work.

But nearly a century later, the 42-year-old software consultant and political junkie finds himself yet again translating the impenetrable prose of California's ballot measures for his fans on the Internet.

"My friends are all bugging me for it," said Friedl, who works out of his Tustin home. "I've got a couple dozen people waiting."

Johnson, a California governor and later a U.S. senator, fought for initiatives, reforms and referendums in the years before World War I. Inveighing against the power of the railroads, he vowed that the voice of the people would be heard, strong and clear.

But these days, critics say that when the people's voice is there at all, it's often muted by layers of dense, misleading and downright snooze-inducing verbiage.

This year, Californians will vote on 16 statewide measures, far fewer than the 48 that confronted the electorate in 1914.

Even so, the state's 2004 Official Voter Information Guide runs 165 pages, more than half a pound of propositions, analysis, arguments and rebuttals on topics from Indian gambling to embryonic stem cell research, framed in language only a tax lawyer could love.

Although some celebrate the initiative process as an exercise in direct democracy, many voters are bothered and befuddled. They say they shouldn't be called on to tackle the complex problems that legislators largely avoid.

In 1990, a Times poll found that more than seven in 10 Californians thought the system had "gone out of control." Other polls have found that an overwhelming number of Californians -- 75% in a poll four years ago -- think the process is a good idea.

People like Friedl dive happily into the electoral smorgasbord.

For years, he has gone where few have gone before, boiling down the turgid text of the measures into pithy observations to friends bound for the polls.

Of the Kindergarten-University Public Education Facilities Bond Act of 2004, on the ballot last March, Friedl had this to say:

"My practice is generally to vote no on any bond measure where the proponents say -- in capital letters -- 'does not raise taxes,' " he wrote. "It's like saying that using your credit card is not spending actual money."

The measure passed narrowly.

Although his avocation takes a lot of time, Friedl said he enjoys finding nuggets of sense that would otherwise remain buried.

Take Propositions 1A and 65, both of which would limit the state's ability to divert local tax dollars.

"I have a friend in a water district who explained it to me," Friedl said. "Sacramento freaked out when they saw 65, so they made a deal for 1A, which waters it down some."

Few voters admit to a zest for that kind of detail.

Jeri Lou Ellison, a teacher who lives in Folsom, went eyeball-to-eyeball with the Official Voter Information Guide but got only as far as many a student facing down an algebra text.

"It looks like a small telephone book," she said. "It just sits there staring at me, and I haven't taken a look yet. I just discovered there's a short 'Cliff Notes' version at the front, thank goodness. I might have a peek at that before the election."

For now, the myriad issues have her spinning: embryonic stem cell research, mental health, three strikes, DNA, dueling measures on Indian gaming.

"There's only so much you can comprehend," said Ellison, 40. "How many of us have time to review all this? How many people do you think are going to read through this whole thing and have any idea what they're really voting on?"

For that matter, countered John Matsusaka, president of the Initiatives and Referendums Institute at USC, how many legislators read the bills they pass?

"They don't read all of them, and the governor won't either," he said. "They have trusted advisors who tell them what to do."

For some, Friedl is the trusted advisor. For others, it's the public officials and interest groups who endorse a position, presumably after much study.

An economist who tracks ballot measures worldwide and who has just published a book on the subject, Matsusaka is upbeat about a system so many others bemoan. It's no coincidence, he said, that the 24 states that allow initiatives also keep a tighter rein on spending and taxes.

"The process is imperfect, but so is regular old representative government," he said. "If you stack them up side by side, the laws passed by initiative come out pretty well."

Even if that's so, people like Susan Clark worry that the daunting look and language of so many ballot measures can turn off prospective voters, particularly immigrants.

Executive director of a San Francisco community education group called Common Knowledge, Clark puts together and distributes some 4 million copies of the Easy Voter Guide, a simple manual geared for voters who don't have the kind of English skills required to plow through the state's official publication.

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