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Political Ads Often Aim to Confuse

With eight complicated issues on the ballot and so much being spent on them, the climate is especially ripe to muddy the campaign waters.

November 06, 2005|Evan Halper and Jordan Rau | Times Staff Writers

SACRAMENTO — The 30-second television spot is straightforward: A former teacher of the year, who notes that she is a Democrat, tells viewers she'll be voting for Proposition 76 because it will bring more money to schools.

Nothing confusing there.

But just about every mainstream budget analyst unaligned in the special election campaign says she is wrong. Most agree that the state spending controls proposed in the initiative would actually cost schools more than $4 billion a year.

"It seems like a bald-faced lie," Gary Jacobson, a professor of political science at UC San Diego, said of the ad. "The whole point of the initiative is to prevent the part of the budget that automatically gets spent on education from getting spent on education.... To argue this will create more money for schools is almost straightforwardly false."

Dubious claims are a staple of election campaigns. But with so many complicated issues on the ballot Tuesday, and so many millions of dollars pouring into campaigns for and against them, the climate is particularly ripe for confusion.

Californians are being asked to decide the fate of eight statewide initiatives Tuesday. The measures address abortions for minors, teacher employment rules, the use of public-employee union dues, controls on state spending, the drawing of voting districts, prescription drug discounts and electricity regulation.

According to UC Riverside political science professor Shaun Bowler, political ad makers use the smallest grain of truth to justify misleading claims.

The commercial that features the teacher saying Proposition 76 would boost school funding is based on a long-shot possibility: that lawmakers would spend tens of billions more on schools than funding formulas required.

The California Taxpayers Assn., promoting Proposition 76, says the measure would encourage such spending by freeing lawmakers to add money to schools without making the increase permanent.

Other analysts doubt that lawmakers would ever put as much back into the schools' budget as the spending controls would cut out of it.

In contrast to the Proposition 76 ad, confusing claims in initiative battles are usually made to steer people to vote against something, Bowler said.

"If you can muddy the waters with an ad, make an issue sound more confusing than it is and make people have doubts, you up the 'No' vote," he said. "Adding confusion is a way to help defeat propositions."

Consider the claims being made about Proposition 74, which would increase the time required for teachers to earn tenure and make it easier to fire them.

Ads by unions that oppose the measure say it "allows a principal to fire a teacher without giving a reason or even a hearing."

In fact, the measure would allow principals wide leeway to oust teachers still on probation, but not those who have tenure.

Proposition 77 would take the power to draw voting districts away from the Legislature and give it to retired judges. The measure's opponents are painting the proposal as a back-room power grab by its backers, who include Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

One no-on-77 television spot shows three men in black robes who are clearly up to no good. They furiously cut apart a map of California and then work, grimacing, at putting the pieces back together. As they do, the announcer warns that the measure would change the state Constitution "just for political gain."

The commercial ends with a shot of the map they finally create. It is the shape of Texas.

The message: Schwarzenegger is trying to do in Democratic-dominated California what former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) orchestrated in his state: redrawing political boundaries to help the GOP gain seats.

But there is scant evidence that the redistricting initiative is a Republican power play.

GOP legislators in Sacramento and Washington benefited as much as Democrats from the safe seats drawn for incumbents in 2001.

And the state's Republican congressmen fear that they could lose seats under the measure because the state is heavily Democratic.

Indeed, even as opponents charge that Proposition 77 is a GOP ploy, they have been sending registered Republicans campaign mail warning that the measure is "bad for the Republican Party."

The notices have arrived in voters' mailboxes disguised as jury summonses. Inside is a newspaper quote from Rep. John Doolittle, a Republican from Northern California, warning that the "entire Republican leadership of the House of Representatives, and the chairman of the Republican National Committee all think Prop. 77 is a disastrous idea!"

Steve Poizner, GOP chairman of the yes-on-77 campaign, said opponents are purposely obfuscating the facts.

"They are trying to confuse voters and make them apprehensive about who might be behind this," he said.

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