by Craig Ruff, President

This report comments on the need for state government to provide Michigan residents with information on ballot proposals.

You wouldn’t want every invention of Californians’ fertile minds seeping into Michigan, but one that merits importing is the ballot pamphlet. In California, before every election, the secretary of state mails each household a booklet; you also can listen to a recorded version on cassette in public libraries. Primarily, the booklet guides voters through the measures or referenda that appear on a ballot, although it also gives statewide candidates and political parties space in which to describe themselves and why they deserve support.

For all intents and purposes, the State of Michigan gives voters absolutely no help in understanding or weighing the consequences of referenda. All our state government does is boil down to 100 words a constitutional revision, initiated law, or public act that has been subjected to referendum—the language that appears on the ballot. From then on, politicians and affected interest groups are free to propagandize. What objective information voters get comes from media reporting.

Having just come through the campaign of misinformation about Proposal A, we should consider the merits of our state government helping voters understand ballot measures. Here is what California includes in pamphlets mailed to every household six weeks prior to an election. (As you read the outline below, you may wish to refer to Exhibit 1: a summary of a proposed constitutional amendment to raise alcohol taxes found in the 1990 California general election pamphlet.)


Official Title and Summary As Michigan’s Board of Canvassers now does, the proposal is stated in 100 words or less.
Fiscal Impact A bipartisan legislative office (analyst) estimates the financial effect on state and local government.
Legislative Vote If placed on the ballot by the legislature, the ayes and nays of each house are summed and provided.
Legislative Analysis A page or two of background, discussion of the proposal, and fiscal effects are written by the legislative analyst.
Entire Text To read the entire text of the constitutional amendment or proposed or referendized law, the voter is steered to a section at the end of the pamphlet.

Argument in Favor

A legislator(s), interest group(s), and/or individual(s) provides, in 500 words or less, arguments in support of the proposal.

Rebuttal to Argument in Favor

A legislator(s), interest group(s), and/or individual(s) rebuts, in 250 words or less, the above argument.

Argument Against  

A legislator(s), interest group(s), and/or individual(s) provides, in 500 words or less, arguments against the proposal.

Rebuttal to Argument Against

A legislator(s), interest group(s), and/or individual(s) rebuts, in 250 words or less, the above argument.

Californians who want to cast informed ballots read the pamphlets. People are still swayed by paid advertising, but at least the state government provides information sufficient to permit voters to cast a reasoned ballot. It gives voters the ability to check the facts against the advertised messages.

California’s pamphlet for the June 7 primary (see Exhibit 2) begins with a quick 50-word summary of each ballot measure; short arguments for and against each; and a list of contacts to obtain more information for and against the measure. The more detailed analyses, outlined above, follow in the pamphlet. Samples of candidate statements that are found at the end of the pamphlet are shown in Exhibit 3.

Sacramento takes seriously the information needs of its voters. Like Michigan, its constitution encourages the use of the ballot to decide the fate of proposed or enacted legislation. But unlike Michigan, California arms its voters with knowledge and helps them weigh the consequences of their balloting.

Not only should Michigan’s state government replicate California’s informational pamphlet but it should also go one step further. The state should produce a half-hour videotaped discussion on each ballot measure; after all, video is an excellent medium to inform as well as persuade voters. Proponents and opponents would have equal time to make their arguments. The tapes would be made available to broadcast and cable television systems as well as civic groups and libraries.

Printing pamphlets and producing video programs are not inexpensive. But on March 15 this year Michigan voters had to decide how to raise $4 billion in taxes annually. It cost about $5 million just to hold the election on Proposal A. State government, which placed the issue before us, bears some obligation to give voters analytical tools, not just 100-word synopses and a place to toss in a ballot.

Exhibits (available in Acrobat® format only)

Copyright © 1994

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