Californians Voting on Tons of Stupid Ballot Questions, Again

Before each election, the state of California sends an "Official Voter Guide" to every household with a registered voter. This November the guide is 144 pages long, mostly because it contains arguments and legislative text for 11 ballot propositions. I'm sure all voters will be reading it cover-to-cover with intense interest.

As usual, almost all of the proposals being put before voters are bad. By my count, voters ought to reject nine out of 11. It's no coincidence that the two outliers are repeals:  Proposition 34, which would end the death penalty, and Proposition 36, which would partially reverse California's overly draconian "three strikes" law -- itself adopted by a ballot initiative in 1994.

Unfortunately, voters will probably approve one or more of the unwise proposals this November. Californians are poised to enact bad new laws on topics from human trafficking to genetically modified foods to taxes.

This isn't new: Through the decades, Californians have burdened themselves with a wide variety of stupid voter-initiated laws. Californians love tax limitation laws -- like 1978's Proposition 13 -- which prevent tax increases. They love "ballot-box budgeting" laws -- like 1988's Proposition 98 -- which prevent spending cuts. With all that voter meddling, it's not hard to figure out why California has a perpetual fiscal crisis.

And Californians love laws that sound good but aren't, like Proposition 65, which passed with 63 percent of the vote in 1986. This law requires businesses to inform customers when products might contain toxins or carcinogens. Sounds nice, right?

Instead, the law has led to a litigation bonanza, with eagle-eyed tort lawyers looking for businesses with unflagged hazardous substances, such as paint on their walls. This has led to California being festooned with lawyer-proofing signs carrying the message that everything might kill you. If you've ever seen a sign on a jetway at a California airport informing you that jet exhaust might be bad for you, you can thank Proposition 65.

This year, Californians will vote on Proposition 37, which would require genetically-modified foods to be labeled and would use a similar lawsuit-based enforcement mechanism as Prop 65 -- even though there's no reason to believe GMOs are unsafe. It's a repetition of the same mistake, and yet it's ahead in the polls.

I give California's voters a hard time for their bad judgment, and they deserve it. Not every state makes a complete mockery of its ballot measure process; the wise and judicious voters in my home state of Massachusetts have usually made sound choices about the questions put before them.

But it is unreasonable to expect Californians to wade through 144 pages of ballot arguments and bill text, plus get informed about local questions: San Francisco voters, for example, will face seven local questions on top of the 11 statewide ones. Requiring initiative proponents to collect more petition signatures, which would mean fewer questions on the ballot, would lead to a less burdened electorate and maybe even better policy outcomes.

(Josh Barro is lead writer for the Ticker. E-mail him and follow him on Twitter.)

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