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Ballot Propositions for Dummies: A Voter-Friendly Political Cheat Sheet

California voters will face eleven statewide propositions on their ballots this November, with everything from GMO-labeled food to the death penalty up for a vote. The good news is that you will be able to directly have your say on a wide variety of political issues. The bad news is you now have to figure out what all of these measures actually mean. To help you with your vote, we’ve put together a cheat sheet.

Prop. 30

Upshot: Raises the sales tax for everyone and the income tax for those who make more than $250,000/ year. If not passed, the state would automatically cut around $6 billion in spending.

Background: The perpetual fault line in California politics is between Democrats who advocate a mix of spending cuts and revenue increases, versus Republicans who favor an all-cut approach to the budget. The state constitution gives the legislative GOP—despite its tiny minority status—a veto over tax proposals. To work around them, Governor Jerry Brown placed Prop. 30 on the ballot.

Pro: Were Prop. 30 not to pass, the state would be forced to make additional cuts to spending, concentrated mostly in education. Proponents argue that Prop. 30 would help balance the state budget. Major supporters include Governor Brown, the California Democratic Party, and unions.

Con: Opponents argue that the best way to address the state budget is by cutting “waste, bureaucracy, and administrative overhead.” Major groups in opposition include the Small Business Action Committee, the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers’ Association, Park Place Asset Management, and the California Republican Party.

Crystal Ball: Polls predict that voters should pass the measure, but it will be a nailbiter. If they don’t, expect another round of major cuts, especially to education. The voters may be confused between this and Prop. 38, a rival tax measure.

 

Prop. 31

Upshot: A mélange of good-government reforms to the lawmaking process. It requires Sacramento to budget in two-year cycles (rather than every year as is currently done), and institutes what policy wonks call “pay-go,” which requires the legislature to fully fund new or expanded programs. It also requires a performance review of all state programs.

Background: Almost all observers agree that the budget process is broken. Many reforms have been proposed over the years, including the recent change to a “simple majority” for passage, though not for raising taxes. Prop. 31 ropes together several of the most popular of these reform proposals.

Pro: Proponents argue that Prop. 31 would require a balanced budget and encourage problem solving by local government. The good-government group California Forward provided most of the early support for the proposition, joined by Nicolas Berggruen, a billionaire investor.

Con: Sacramento Bee columnist Dan Walters argues, colorfully, that “Proposition 31 is akin to giving someone with a flesh-eating infection an aspirin to relieve the pain momentarily when the patient truly needs radical surgery or powerful drugs to stop the infection.”

Crystal Ball: A recent field poll showed the proposition losing badly. Neither the left nor the right loves it, leaving centrist voters to possibly carry the measure. Its complexity, however, may doom it.

 

Prop. 32

Upshot: Limits the ability of corporations and unions to fund political campaigns using payroll deductions. This measure would mostly affect union political spending.

Background: Unions—especially those made up of public-sector employees like teachers—provide much of the leftward-leaning funding in California politics. To fund their political efforts, they often take payroll deductions from their members. This proposition would ban these efforts. Versions of what its supporters call “paycheck protection” came before state voters in 1998 and 2005, and lost both times.

Pro: Supporters have argued that Prop. 32 would cut the tie between politicians and special interests, ensuring that no California worker would be forced to make a political contribution. Prominent supporters include the California Republican Party, the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers’ Association, and Richard Munger, Jr., a wealthy Stanford physicist.

Con: Opponents argue that the measure one-sidedly harms union spending without affecting corporate money. Though the measure does ban companies from using payroll deductions to fund political campaigns, very few corporations actually do so. The proposition does not restrict the standard manners of corporate political spending. Opponents include the California Democratic Party, the California League of Women Voters, and unions.

Crystal Ball: This proposal has lost at the ballot box twice before, and polling indicates that it is likely to go down a third time as well. Were it to pass, expect that it would be tied up in a long court battle.

 

Prop. 33

Upshot: Allows auto insurance companies to offer a “continuous coverage” discount.

Background: In 1988, Proposition 103 dramatically reshaped California insurance regulations, which became overseen by an elected insurance commissioner. Under the new policies, auto insurance companies were forbidden from offering “persistency discounts” to customers who had never gone without auto coverage. The auto insurance companies tried to change that regulation in 2010 with Proposition 17, which was narrowly defeated. Prop. 33 is a modified version of that initiative.

Pro: Currently, consumers are eligible for the discount only if they stay with a single company. Proponents argue that this restriction gives a disincentive to consumers to shop around for insurance. The major funding for the proposition came from George Joseph, the chair of Mercury Insurance, who has given over $8 million.

Con: Opponents argue that the changes would hurt people who stopped driving for a good reason and now want to re-start their coverage. They argue that Mercury Insurance has a record of overcharging consumers.

Crystal Ball: In 2010, this measure was voted down by a narrow 52-48 margin. This time around, anything could happen.

 

Prop 34

Upshot: Bans the death penalty, and changes current death penalties to life without parole.

Background: The courts struck down California’s death penalty in the 1970s, but the voters brought it back in 1978. Since then, the state has executed thirteen people. California’s Death Row currently has more than 700 prisoners, and the state is one of 33 to have the death penalty.

Pro: Opponents of the death penalty point to the possibility of executing innocent people, and to the high cost of keeping inmates incarcerated through decades of appeals.

Con: Supporters of the death penalty point to its effect as a deterrent to crime and as an appropriate response to the most heinous crimes.

Crystal Ball: Three different polls in the last month have shown the initiative trailing badly.

 

Prop. 35

Upshot: Increases the scope of laws punishing human trafficking and the penalties for those convicted. 

Background: Chris Kelly, who lost his race for Attorney General to Kamala Harris, helped draft this initiative, which has support from both the Democratic and Republican Parties, and a wide range of elected officials and activists.

Pro: The Internet has made it easier than ever for predators to engage in human trafficking, yet California’s laws have not caught up with these recent trends.

Con: Though no one is actually in favor of human trafficking and sex crimes, opponents claim that laws that criminalize prostitution can backfire.

Crystal Ball: According to polls, this proposition should cruise to victory.

 

Prop. 36

Upshot: Restricts “Three Strikes” penalties to serious or violent felony convictions.

Background: In 1994, state voters approved a system of criminal penalties called Three Strikes, mandating a life sentence for anyone convicted of three felony crimes. According to the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, more than half of those convicted of second or third strikes had committed either a property or drug-related crime. In 2004, voters rejected a similar measure to restrict the scope of third strikes.

Pro: Supporters claim that the Three Strikes law should only be applied to violent of serious offenses. Current law overcrowds prisons with those being punished disproportionately for minor offenses.

Con: Opponents argue that the current law has dramatically reduced crime and should not be changed.

Crystal Ball: Recent polling suggests that Prop. 36 may pass, but voters have rejected a version of it once before.

 

Prop. 37

Upshot: Requires labeling of genetically-modified foods.

Background: The United States is one of the only modern industrial countries that does not require some manner of labeling of genetically-modified foods sold to consumers. This measure would be the first of its kind in this country.

Pro: Backers claim that people should know as much as possible about their food, and that some kinds of genetically-modified foods carry a health risk. Supporters include Michael Pollan who made his case in the New York Times, Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soap, Amy’s Kitchen, and Clif Bar and Co.

Con: Giant agribusiness companies like Monsato, Dupont, and Conagra have raised more than $35 million to defeat the measure. They worry that it would open up potential lawsuits without providing any benefit to consumers.

Crystal Ball: The polling has been mixed, and opponents have almost unlimited resources to defeat it. Expect a late night on November 6 waiting for the returns.

 

Prop. 38

Upshot: Raises personal income tax rates.

Background: A competitor to Prop. 30 that would raise taxes in a different manner, and earmark most of the revenue for education spending. Pro: Prop. 38’s main backer is Molly Munger, a Southern California attorney, who has donated more than $33 million for its passage. She argues that state education requires more funding.

Con: Backers of Prop. 30 have argued that having multiple competing measures on the same ballot makes it likely that both will lose.

Crystal Ball: Polling has consistently shown this proposition losing, but the real question is whether it brings down Prop. 30 with it as well.

 

Prop. 39

Upshot: Changes how multi-state business income tax is calculated, which would in effect increase those taxes. The state would raise an addition $1 billion per year.

Background: Firms that are located out of the state but do business here pay lower tax rates than those in the state. Several others states, including Texas, Illinois, and New Jersey, have adopted measures like this one, which puts in-state and out-of-state corporations on the same tax footing. Governor Schwarzenegger changed California's tax law during his term as part of a budget deal.

Pro: Supporters argue that out-of-state tax favorability came about as a loophole in the 2009 budget negotiations and that Prop. 39 closes it.

Con: Opponents argue that California already has a business-unfriendly climate and that a tax increase would hurt its economy.

Crystal Ball: Polls have been mixed. Expect this one to be a close vote either way.

 

Prop. 40

Upshot: Would approve the recent redistricting maps for the state senate.

Background: In 2008, voters passed Proposition 11, which put the job of drawing political districts in the hands of a bipartisan citizens commission. New boundaries are drawn every ten years, following the U.S. Census. This measure was put on the ballot by opponents of the way the commission drew the State Senate map.

Pro: A yes vote would retain the work of the citizen commission.

Con: In mid-July, after a court decision, opponents decided to suspend their campaign. There is currently no organized opposition. Our

Crystal Ball: Polls show that voters may be confused about this measure, but the expectation is that they will uphold the districts on election day.

 

Read More: 

User Friendly Ballot Guide, Part Two.