Ballot ordering switcheroo: Why all the fuss?

150 150 Stacy Danielson

November’s ballot ordering is turning into a real Royal Rumble (photo: Chamber of Fear/Flickr)

On June 20 three much awaited tax-increasing initiatives qualified for the November general election ballot in the following order: 

  1. Thomas Steyer’s measure which raises revenue by changing the way multistate businesses in California calculate their income tax liability, basing it on a percentage of their sales in California.
  2. Molly Munger’s measure which temporarily increases income taxes on a sliding scale for most Californians to fund K-12 education and early childhood programs, and to repay state debt.
  3. Governor Brown/California Teacher’s Association’s measure which temporarily raises income taxes for the rich and sales tax  by ¼ cent to fund K-12 education, community colleges and public safety realignment which began in October 2011 (AB 109, signed into law April 2011).

Normally, these propositions would appear on our November ballots in the order in which they qualify (which happens when county elections offices submit enough valid signatures), putting them in spots 9, 10 and 11, respectively.   

Seven days after signature submission, the Governor signed the state budget into law along with several trailer bills that were outbound from the Legislature. The top line of one of those bills, Assembly Bill number 1499, reads: 

“The Legislature finds and declares that bond measures and constitutional amendments should have priority on the ballot because of the profound and lasting impact these measures can have on our state. Bond measures create debts against the state treasury that obligate the resources of future Californians. Constitutional amendments make changes to our state’s fundamental principles and protections. In recognition of their significance, bond measures and constitutional amendments should be placed at the top of the ballot to ensure that the voters can carefully weigh the consequences of these important measures.”

According to AB 1499, the new order is as follows:

  1. Bonds
  2. Constitutional amendments (whether legislative or by initiative)
  3. Legislative measures
  4. Initiative measures
  5. Referendum measures

The crux of why proponents of the other two tax measures are up in arms about how all of this went down lies in the fact that a $1000 appropriation of the state budget was included AB 1499: 

“This act is a bill providing for appropriations related to the Budget Bill within the meaning of subdivision (e) of Section 12 of Article IV of the California Constitution, has been identified as related to the budget in the Budget Bill, and shall take effect immediately.”

If this budget appropriation had not been included in AB 1499, this bill would have had to wait, with the rest of the non-budget-related bills, until January 1 to take, and would not have affected this election at all.

The Governor’s measure is a constitutional amendment.  Munger’s and Steyer’s are not (they change state statute only).  There are also no bonds on the November ballot.  So the Governor’s initiative qualified as a constitutional amendment and a bill passes—effective immediately—that moves all constitutional amendments to the top of the ballot just below bonds.

This move has been highly contentious not only because of how it went down but because Brown’s and Munger’s measures are effectively competing against one another.  They both raise income taxes to fund education, and it is extremely unlikely a voter will vote yes on both.

On June 28 Molly Munger  and her campaign, “Our Children, Our Future,” filed a lawsuit against the Secretary of State’s office stating that county elections officials gave preferential treatment to Brown’s initiative and calling AB 1499 “an abuse of the political process and legislative power.”  

On July 9 Sacramento Superior Court judge Michael Kenny ruled against Munger, rejecting the contention.  Since then, the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association has stepped in to appeal the ruling. 

The million dollar question:  Does the order in which propositions appear on the ballot really matter?  Opinions are mixed.

Some election experts say high placement can improve a measure’s chances of passing because there is potential for voters to become disinterested as they work their way down a long list of complicated proposals. For most voters, this November ballot will be long and complicated.

When I asked veteran campaign strategist Mike Madrid whether order matters, he contended “it really doesn’t,” stating that “the vast majority of voters are going to know whether they’re voting for the Munger measure or the Governor’s measure. They’re not dumb.”  

Madrid even cited two elections where this proved to be the case.  Of the three auto insurance-related propositions on the March 1996 ballot, Propositions 200, 201 and 202, voters only passed the one in the middle.  And in June 2008 two competing ballot measures, Propositions 98 and 99—both on reforming eminent domain laws in California—where 99 came after 98 and was the last of nine measures on the ballot, voters said yes to 99 and no to all eight measures listed before it.  

“Voters are very discerning. Being first on the minds of the voters is more important than being first on the ballot,” said Madrid. 

“There’s no evidence suggesting that ballot placement has anything to do with the outcome of your measure.”

On July 9 the Secretary of State assigned proposition numbers to each measure that will appear on our ballots in November.  There are 11 total, numbered 30 – 40.  The Governor’s measure is Proposition 30, Munger’s measure is Proposition 38, and Steyer’s measure is Proposition 39.  

The day after numbers were assigned, the 3rd District Court of Appeals (spurred by the appeal of the Munger verdict by the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association) asked to hear justification from Secretary of State Debra Bowen by July 30 as to her numbering. In short, the order of the November ballot propositions may still change.

Though we realize the above information is critical to understanding how we got here, we at California Forward believe the crux of the matter lies elsewhere.

All the ordering, lawsuits, and political maneuvering aside, the moral of this ballot soap opera is that the real difference in this election is the ability of you, the voter, to do your homework, read about the propositions on the Secretary of State’s website, read the voter information guide when you get it in the mail, or read the reputable nonpartisan voter guides produced by the California Voter Foundation or the California League of Women Voters.

Don’t let the 11 propositions daunt or confuse you on November 6.  Our mantra is that an informed electorate grants itself the power to avoid getting stuck in such a tangled web. You will not be swayed by ballot ordering if you come to the polls informed enough to make your own decision.


Stacy Danielson

All stories by: Stacy Danielson