Servicey: How competing ballot measures work

One of the most shenanigan-prone aspects of the electoral process (and oh, there are so many! How to choose?!) is the initiative and referendum system used in various forms across the country. For those unfamiliar with the concept, it theoretically allows citizens and/or members of the legislature to bring matters to the public directly for a vote, bypassing the state house. Proponents argue that this allows people to make their voices heard on issues of civic importance when they feel that they are not being represented, while opponents argue that it is highly vulnerable to abuse. Both, to some extent, are right.

One recent classic example in California was Proposition 8, which passed in 2008, putting a stop to same-gender marriages (later overturned as unconstitutional). An older law that may be less familiar to people outside the state is 1978’s Prop 13, a major contributor to California’s flailing budget by way of limiting property tax. Proposition 8 passed because it was structured in a very misleading way, and many people thought that voting ‘yes’ was a yes to retain marriage rights, when in fact the opposite was true — and the law was also heavily driven by a huge Mormon-propelled get out the vote effort. Prop 13, meanwhile, was positioned as a law that would help older adults on fixed incomes by ensuring that their property taxes didn’t rise, but of course it had the pleasant side bonus of benefiting profiteers who didn’t want to see their property taxes rise.

State-by-state structures vary considerably, and I don’t want to get into the fine-grained details of how initiatives, referendums, propositions, amendments, and so forth end up on the ballot today because we could be here all day. And possibly all night. What I want to get at is competing ballot initiatives, because they tend to cause a lot of confusion, and that’s not good — especially since many people exploit that confusion for political gain.

Competing initiatives basically are written in such a way that they contradict each other, or contain clauses that contradict each other. In a very simple example, one measure might ban the death penalty, while the other might vote to uphold it. A more complicated ‘poison pill’ measure might ban vaping in public for all people under 21, while another might ban it for under-18s. In both examples, whichever initiative gets the most votes supercedes the other, even if the losing proposition passes by way of majority vote.

Let’s take the death penalty example: Proposition A bans it, Proposition B upholds it. If Proposition A gets 56% of the vote and Proposition B gets 57%, the state upholds the death penalty, even though the ban passed too. A similar phenomenon would be true in the case of the poison pill example, which is important, because these kinds of competing initiatives are often designed to be deliberately confusing: For example, someone who prefers not to be around vaping in public might vote for both initiatives, reasoning that if one doesn’t pass, perhaps the other will. The authors of these laws are actually counting on that — in this case, they’re hoping that the under 18 ban will get more votes, thereby allowing all people over 18 to vape in public spaces, and they’ll game the system with smart advertising (e.g. ‘Are you 20? Vote against measure A!’ and ‘We already ban tobacco products for people under 18, let’s reinforce that!’).

Usually these measures are put on the ballot by opposing social interest groups of one form or another. A police reform group might want to pass a law mandating the use of body cams, for instance, while others might want to ensure that such a law doesn’t pass. Both groups are not above using deceptive wording and advertising to trick people into not understanding what their votes actually mean.

So how do you deal with competing ballot measures to ensure that you’re voting for what you think you’re voting for? Start by looking at what’s at stake and deciding how you want to vote on it: Let’s say that you think bodycams are a good idea. Read the wording of both initiatives very carefully to make sure that you’re voting yes on the initiative that actually mandates them (remember the lessons of Prop 8!). If you’re not sure, take a look at the endorsements to see who is backing the initiative, or read some op-eds articulating what’s going on. If there are two similarly-looking initiatives on the ballot, they’re competing, and voting yes (or no) on both is not a good idea. Next, and this is very important, vote no on the competing initiative.

By voting yes on the law you want to pass, you’re obviously, er, voting yes. But by voting against the competing measure, you’re helping to decrease the chance that it will win by a margin sufficient enough to beat out your initiative. Since this can get a little confusing, it’s a good idea to widely spread this information to friends, family, random people you pass on the street, etc — specifically spell it out: ‘Want to ban the death penalty? Vote yes on A, no on B.’

This is really important for campaigners who are doing outreach, because regrettably they are not always the best about doing that. It’s the same thing that happened with Prop 8, where opponents of marriage equality mobilised in huge numbers to target demographics they thought were vulnerable, while organisers against the initiative really failed on their own get out the vote effort, many assuming that the measure wouldn’t pass given what they anticipated would be a high liberal turnout.

It’s really important to vote the whole ballot, even if it gets long. Competing initiatives can be incredibly sneaky and artfully disguised, and it would be a pity to unwittingly vote against your intent, or to see a law pass because you forgot to vote against the competing measure, or didn’t realise that you needed to.