Written by Amy Cabrera Rasmussen, Professor of Political Science at California State University, Long Beach
During this unusual election season, there rightly has been much attention to the importance of making a plan to vote. What might come immediately to mind: making sure one is registered, ensuring one has their voting materials, knowing how and where to cast a ballot, and really just setting aside the time to submit it. All of these are essential, of course!
But what might be missing from your voting plan might be the decision-making process itself. Aside from the presidency and other government officials, you also may need to decide how to vote on what are often confusing ballot propositions! Starting with your values and using some shorthand techniques can help make sure this process is less stressful than it has to be.
Voting is a fundamental responsibility of citizens in a democracy. In the United States, voters make a lot of decisions! We vote for several levels of government officials: federal, state, and local. We may vote on a range of positions: everything from judges, district attorneys, city council members, mayors, sheriffs, school board members, state legislators, state attorneys general, treasurers, representatives in the House, Senators, and president, and everything in between. We also have primaries, general elections, and sometimes special elections. Elections for different levels of government are also not always on the same timeline.
Besides voting on government officials, citizens in a number of states and localities may also have an additional responsibility: to make direct decisions about whether and how government will act on a particular social issue. You may ask, how does such a choice get on the ballot? Sometimes it starts with citizens and groups with a strong interest in an issue. Other times measures can be placed on the ballot by the state legislature or through another governmental process that might require voters to weigh in. When coming from outside of government, getting on the ballot requires some initial showing of popular interest from voters– usually demonstrated by getting a set number of voter signatures on formal petitions. Direct forms of democracy can also involve removing and replacing certain elected officials before their term is over.
While all of this can be seen as adding to the “burden” on a voter, there are some ways to make sound decisions on ballot measures in an efficient and informed way. And in our system, it is rare that we as citizens get to make decisions directly to make policy.
So let’s work on a plan to vote on ballot propositions. Here are my suggestions for doing so, with examples pulled from my local California context.
START BY PULLING TOGETHER ALL OF THE VOTING MATERIALS YOU HAVE RECEIVED IN THE MAIL
These may include:
- Vote by mail notices
- Official sample ballot
- Vote center locations brochure
- Official voter information guide
- Official vote by mail ballot
- + any pamphlets or advertisements you may have received for candidates or ballot propositions
If you did not receive or have misplaced any of the official items listed above, you can go directly to the official California Secretary of State website at: http://sos.ca.gov/elections for digital or replacement information.
UNDERSTAND WHAT YOU ARE DECIDING UPON
The official voter guide provided by the California Secretary of State’s website contains the formal title and summary of the proposition, as well as an analysis of the background, proposal, and anticipated effects.
If these official write-ups leave you more confused than when you started or just overwhelm you in their formality, I recommend also reviewing some of the summaries that different media outlets have put together.
There are many to choose from, but I particularly like these:
CalMatters: Very concise overviews of the propositions from a nonpartisan statewide news source.
KCET: A brief summary of the propositions on the ballot, by a local TV station, presented in the form of short videos.
NEXT, CONSIDER YOUR VALUES + TAKE CUES FROM SUPPORTERS AND OPPONENTS:
In the official voter guide, room is also given to those who support and oppose each proposition. Here you can find their arguments, responses (also known as “rebuttals”) and gain a sense of who folks are on either side– the types of people and the organizations with which they are connected. You can compare these to your own values and viewpoints and see which you feel are closest to your own position in society or which seem to represent your thinking best.
I also recommend that you look to news outlets and state and local organizations if you need help to develop your position. One of the media’s roles in a democracy is to inform citizens. If there is a newspaper or news site that you read and find yourself agreeing with frequently, this can help you to decide which way to vote. But please note that most endorsements made are by an editorial board— not reporters.
You can also look to the state-level political parties for guidance. One role that parties can play in a democracy is to help to break down the complexity in politics. Having a dozen direct democracy measures on the November ballot certainly meets the definition of complexity in my humble opinion! So, one way to inform your positions on the ballot measures is to use how the political parties take positions on the propositions. For example, if you lean toward or ally with the Democratic party, you might want to follow their guidance on the propositions. If you lean toward or ally with the Republican party, you might want to follow their guidance. If you do not associate with either party but feel that you lean away from one, then that will give you a signal also. Sometimes they provide this info to you via mailers, or by dropping off flyers at your doorstep on election day. These days, they also post them online. The Democratic and Republican parties of California have published their official standpoints on the specific ballot measures. Several of the minor parties have their own endorsements as well.
You can also look to organizations that you trust–local or otherwise. Sometimes rules prevent some organizations from taking official positions, but some can and do. They may not take positions on all measures, but may do so on the ones they feel connect most to their focus area or ones they are legally able to comment upon. If you are familiar with them and their work, you might find guidance from their selections.
If you want to have the greatest assurance in the advice of others, you might want to look at endorsements in combination. This way, you can map your allegiances more precisely and see where there is agreement or disagreement in the patterns. For instance, here is a summary table of current endorsements of a range of organizations (media outlets, political parties, and organizations– all available online):
Summary of endorsements for California’s statewide ballot propositions
Use these for reference, or find other media outlets and political groups that represent you better! Positions as found on the various websites of these entities as of October 13, 2020.
DO ADDITIONAL RESEARCH IF NEEDED AND MAKE DECISIONS
If you saw multiple groups that you align with making the same endorsement, that can increase your faith in that position. But if there are differences in endorsements or a neutral position, this may be where you spend your time and effort to most carefully review the ballot measures and make a firm decision. You may also want to do a higher level of research on the issues that matter most to you. (One caution: I don’t usually recommend using television commercials as a guidepost– they tend to only confuse matters more in the way that they frame things– often one can watch both pro and con ads and find something that resonates.) Instead, read news articles, go to the official voter guide, and discuss with those you trust.
LAST STEP, RECORD YOUR CHOICES!
I recommend entering your choices first into your sample ballot. If you are voting in person, you can take your sample ballot with you to the polling place to ensure you mark the decisions you mean to make. If you are mailing in your ballot, you can practice on the sample ballot first, and if you change your mind, make any potential changes on that sample ballot before you enter them into the official ballot and submit it.
Finally, while it can feel like a hurdle to have to make so many decisions on ballot measures along with everything else this year, having a guide for doing so can make it less stressful and ensure you use your time most efficiently. All this while also upholding your personal values on issues that matter to you and the state as whole.
I suggest working on this part of the ballot early so you don’t feel rushed or overwhelmed as deadlines approach, and can feel confident in the decisions you make. You don’t want to get waylaid as you cast your vote– democracy is strengthened when we all participate!
Please note that this blog post is purely for educational purposes. It is not an endorsement for any particular position on the 2020 California ballot propositions. You should follow any additional or alternative steps you feel are needed as you cast your ballot. If you are reading this from a state other than California, you can of course modify the steps above to your particular context if you have state ballot measures upon which to vote! And in all cases, please check with your appropriate election officials to ensure you follow all appropriate policies and laws!
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Amy Cabrera Rasmussen is a Professor in the Department of Political Science at California State University, Long Beach, where she teaches courses on U.S. politics and public policy. Her research examines policymaking on issues such as health and the environment, and she has been a long-time participant in a local environmental coalition in her native Southern California. She is also one of the founding directors of the APSA Institute on Civically Engaged Research.