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Tactical Confusion

It's a California ballot tradition -- confound the voter any way you can.

October 31, 2005|Ethan Rarick | ETHAN RARICK, the acting director of the Center on Politics at the UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies, is the author of "California Rising: The Life and Times of Pat Brown" (UC Press, 2005).

OF ALL THE SLY tactics commanded by the backroom bosses of initiative campaigns -- elicit fear, evoke compassion, pander to greed -- one of the simplest is this: sow confusion. If politics is a rhetorical form of combat, few weapons are more effective than the fog of war.

A perfect example confounds voters now -- Propositions 78 and 79 on the Nov. 8 ballot appear to be quite similar but in fact have crucial differences. But this is hardly the first time that the state's famous affinity for ballot measures has forced the electorate to make a baffling choice.

Even in the state's fondly remembered postwar Golden Age, gamesmanship surrounded the initiative process. In 1952, Democrats and Republicans mounted competing measures to reform the state's system of primary voting.

Republicans wanted to preserve "cross-filing," which allowed politicians to compete in the primaries of multiple parties, because it helped them win more seats in the Legislature. Democrats sponsored a ballot measure to abolish the practice, which they branded a sneaky political relic. Republicans countered with their own ballot measure, designed to weaken but not eliminate cross-filing. On top of that, the Republican secretary of state assigned the Democratic measure the unlucky number 13 and gave the GOP-backed version lucky number 7. (In the end, the GOP outsmarted itself. Voters approved the Republican measure, but the changes still ended up benefiting Democrats.)

The clutter of competing measures has only grown more complex. In 1988, for example, an array of initiatives dealt with the sharply rising cost of car insurance. Voters eventually adopted Proposition 103, cutting rates sharply, but first they had to navigate through the cacophony of electoral background noise surrounding the issue, including the hype for Proposition 104, a no-fault insurance proposal backed by the insurance industry and dismissed by many consumer advocates.

Then there are times when confusion is the result not of multiple initiatives but misdirection in the way a single measure is written, so that the wording disguises who is behind it or its likely outcome.

In 1996, the owners of mobile home parks were among the sponsors of an initiative that was pitched as a way to increase affordable housing, although its real purpose was to loosen up rent control in the parks. Just last year, card clubs and racetracks sponsored a measure ostensibly designed to extract a "fair share" of state taxes from the gambling profits of Indian tribes with casinos. In fact, it was more about legalizing slot machines for those same clubs and racetracks.

Interestingly, voters often see through the ruse. Both the mobile home and the "fair share" measures failed, for example. And voters shuffled through the pack of insurance measures in 1988 and picked the one -- Proposition 103 -- that was publicly supported by the "guru" of consumerism, Ralph Nader.

That doesn't mean the task of figuring out how to vote is getting easier, which brings us back to Propositions 78 and 79. Both measures seek to address the skyrocketing cost of prescription drugs. Both would create programs to provide poor people with discounted drugs. Both would charge a small annual fee to those enrolled in the program.

BUT THERE IS a crucial difference not readily apparent to the casual voter. Proposition 79 is backed by consumer groups and labor unions. Proposition 78 was put on the ballot by the pharmaceutical industry specifically to distract voters from 79. It claims to cut drug prices -- but for fewer people and only through the voluntary cooperation of drug companies. So far, most people can't figure out which initiative is which. One recent poll found that only 13% of those asked were able to correctly identify who was behind Proposition 78. Far more people got it wrong, insisting that the pharmaceutical industry opposes its own measure. Voters were almost as confused about the support for Proposition 79.

Such confusion helps the drug companies for two reasons.

First, if people really understood the lineage of each measure, the industry-backed version would be more likely to fail. When voters are provided with the correct lineup of sponsors -- the pharmaceutical industry for 78 and consumer groups and unions for 79 -- a good chunk of them says it is more likely to vote against 78 and for 79.

Second, and more important, if voters are confused about which initiative is which, they may just vote against both. That's the safest thing to do. Voters know that if they defeat an initiative, they will be left with the status quo; not ideal, perhaps, but survivable.

That would hardly be a bad outcome for an industry that, under the status quo, earned enough money to spend about $80 million on the current campaign. If you want to know their real goal in the election, consider their TV ads. The drug companies have spent far more on commercials trashing their opponents' measure than on ads supporting their own.

If voters reject both initiatives, or if they approve Proposition 78 while mistakenly believing it to be the brainchild of consumer groups, then the dark art of obfuscation will have cast another spell in California's never-ending initiative wars.

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