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The notion that giving people hundreds of pages of technical legal jargon and definitions of words that you have to look up the definitions for to understand can’t credibly be seen as increasing access to the democratic process.
This week, City Council had a decision to make: annoy virtually every San Diegan with hundreds of pages of legalese in our November ballot, or use the wide array of old and new technologies available to save upward of $1 million and keep my Nextdoor feed from blowing up due to people complaining about it.
Any guesses on where we landed?
There’s a local law that requires the full text of ballot measures be sent to every registered voter. As someone who favors an informed citizenry and full transparency, you’d think I’d be in favor of this type of law. Conceptually it sounds great – more information, more opportunity to read printed words, more of everything your informed voter could want, except actual useful information.
Let me explain why the city should have sided with Councilman Todd Gloria and Councilwoman Sherri Lightner, both of whom voted against printing the full text, on this one.
Unlike any voting materials I’ve seen in my lifetime, there are well over 200 pages of material on this ballot, and that’s just the Citizens’ Plan and the Chargers’ initiative. No, I’m not kidding. There’s still about 10 other local changes to the city’s charter (it’s like the Constitution, but for our city), all with proposed new mind-numbingly boring text to read through. That’ll get us up to the 250-page range. And we haven’t even left the city limits yet.
Remember, the ballot also has that fancy transportation tax the regional planning agency, known as SANDAG, wants to pass. No, that’s not all. There are plenty of other candidates and their candidate statements, measures and statewide items all requiring our detailed attention. And, in the city of San Diego anyway, requiring the destruction of our trees – or somebody’s trees.
The city clerk, after providing more warnings and provisos than 10 lawyers, told us that all this paper printing is likely to cost around $800,000 to $1 million. It’s not just the money, the confusion this may cause voters and the logistics hurdles for the city to prepare, package and deliver these documents all should make you wonder how Gloria’s simple request to save us from this needless trip to the recycling bin didn’t sail through unopposed.
Well, I’m glad you asked. The primary arguments presented by the others are these: First, eliminating the paper printing requirement in favor of putting the measures online, at libraries, and making them available at no cost to the public would decrease voter access. Secondly, failing to print these kettle bell-sized ballot measure texts verbatim would decrease transparency in the voting process. And third, the law says we have to (unless the City Council votes not to, which it could have).
I am not anti-information or anti-voting. But two things immediately come to mind. First, the notion that giving people hundreds of pages of technical legal jargon and definitions of words that you have to look up the definitions for to understand can’t credibly be seen as increasing access to the democratic process. We make many other public documents – many very important public documents – available only upon request or that require a charge. I’m not in favor of paying for voting material. I’m just saying that the notion of sending me 300 pages of well-written Mandarin would be about as useful in fostering access as the city’s decision to include the full text of every proposed ballot measure.
Also, has anyone ever seen a City Council docket? You’d be forgiven if your answer was “no” or if your answer was “what’s a docket?” If we are really worried about transparency, trust me when I tell you that changing the word “docket” to “agenda” and requiring items on those agendas to be written in plain English (or Spanish or Somali if you like) is a much better place to start. Heck, I wonder how many people even understood the various charter amendments that were on the last ballot in June (I had to ask friends and Google stuff to fully understand).
So, I’m willing to let people play the transparency card, but only if we act like it matters with the rest of local government. Why make it so hard to participate in government? It’s almost like the system is designed for insiders.
In any case, when the four registered voters in your house get ballots that look like phone books everyone tries to opt out of but still get, remember this moment and let your elected officials know that you vote and are capable of requesting hundreds of pages if you want them (you can also request a digital version and opt out of getting the sample ballot by mail)
Until then, that’s one less fire engine or who knows how many homeless services we won’t be able to provide. But at least we’ll have paper. Lots and lots of paper.
Omar Passons is a former land use and construction attorney who works in economic development. Passons’ commentary has been edited for style and clarity. See anything in there we should fact check? Tell us what to check out here.