Thomas Elias: These bills can make state elections almost totally open
California Secretary of State Alex Padilla, an MIT-trained engineer, calls this state’s election system “the gold standard” for America, because it requires more openness than any other state’s. But there’s still work to be done.
For example, walk into a chain grocery store or traverse the entry of many big box stores like Home Depot, Best Buy and Costco during the season for qualifying ballot initiatives, and you could be accosted by petition carriers wanting your signature on measures you may not have heard about or understand.
But if you knew who was behind those proposed laws, who’s paying the petition carriers the usual $3 to $6 per verified voter signature, you might get a better idea what they might do than the measures’ titles ever give.
Putative ballot initiatives and their big-letter titles can be worded in deliberately misleading ways that cause many voters to help qualify proposed propositions they eventually vote against.
The 2017 Disclose Act, passed after several years’ effort by the California Clean Money Action Fund and its allies, already requires almost all political advertising to carry a “paid for by” statement in far larger type than anything elsewhere in the ad. It’s a unique law in America.
But that still doesn’t yield transparency in other areas. A new package of “disclose” bills now moving through the Legislature would fix some remaining problems, including full disclosure of major initiative funders.
The lead bill in this group, known as SB 47, would require listing the top three funders of any proposed ballot initiative prominently on petitions pushed under voters’ noses as they enter stores with almost anything but politics on their minds.
If the funder names don’t fit on the petition itself, they would have to be listed on a separate sheet circulators would have to show all voters. That could make things clumsy for circulators, so almost all top sponsors of potential propositions would show up on the petitions themselves.
Names of funders also could not be obfuscated with misleading committee names, as has often happened. This way, even if the name of a measure is misleading, many voters would still get a pretty good idea what it’s really about even if they are only marginally well-informed.
Anything sponsored by well-known companies from Pacific Gas & Electric Co. to Apple Corp. would obviously be designed to benefit the funding firms, and voters would know it. This plainly needed requirement passed the 40-member state Senate with a whopping 31-5 majority.
A second possible new law, known as SB 636, would require ballot labels for every proposition to list the signers of the ballot arguments for and against every proposal and the affiliations they list in the official guide mailed to every voter. That way, the many voters who don’t bother to read the guide would still get some idea who’s behind a planned law and who’s opposed.
The third bill in this package, AB 1217, would require the list of ballot argument signers to be included in every “electioneering communication” circulated before any election. This includes not only slate mailers that proliferate in the month or two before elections, but also Internet and social media postings. It’s an unprecedented move toward complete election transparency.
Not exactly the same, but important in assuring election security, is a fourth proposal, known as AB 1784, requiring all votes in the state to be cast on easily recountable paper ballots that can be kept as long as needed to conduct reliable recounts in close contests.
This stands in stark contrast to states like Georgia, where most votes are cast on electronic machines with no paper backup, and recounts amount to little more than throwing a switch and repeating the same operation that led to the originally-reported result. No initially-reported election outcome on such hackable machines has ever been reversed in a recount.
All four of these proposed laws passed the legislative house where they originated by margins similar to that given SB 47.
Which means the vast majority of California lawmakers actually want honest, open elections, a major sea change in legislative sentiment since the Disclose Act was first proposed early in this decade.
Email Thomas Elias at email@example.com. His book, “The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It,” is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, go to http://www.californiafocus.net.
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