Some fear bulky ballots may intimidate voters |

Some fear bulky ballots may intimidate voters

Rachel Konrad
Rich Pedroncelli / The Associated Press / San Joaquin County Registrar of Voters Debby Hench fans through the 124-page voter guide, the largest in county history, Monday in Stockton.

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) – Voter guides are landing with a big thud on doorsteps across California, where residents are confronted with an unusually large number of ballot measures and candidates in next month’s election.

Election officials worry that the state’s largest guides – 192-page books sent to 12 million homes – will overwhelm and discourage would-be voters and the size of ballots are creating all kinds of headaches. The array of complicated issues on the ballot could also lead to long lines and delays at polling sites if people haven’t done their homework.

“The state guide is pretty overwhelming. I haven’t gotten through it myself,” Shasta County Clerk Cathy Darling said. “My absentee ballot is sitting here in my desk drawer because I haven’t read it all yet.”

A majority of the state’s 16 million registered voters are expected to vote by mail in the November election. But the ballots in many counties are so big that election officials fear some may be returned for insufficient postage.

California Secretary of State Bruce McPherson said 24 counties have mail-in ballots exceeding one ounce and therefore requiring 63 cents of postage. He is working with the post office to help ensure that ballots with only one 39-cent stamp will be delivered by Election Day.

In Alameda County, east of San Francisco, printing and mailing costs are expected to be “substantially higher” than the $1.5 million it spent for June’s primary, said Registrar Dave Macdonald. He isn’t worried about polling delays but wondered how many voters read the meaty guide.

“People generally make up their minds without reading the sample ballot,” Macdonald said. “For the most part, they have an idea of how they’re going to vote and, frankly, if they don’t understand something they just don’t vote on it.”

California law requires that guides be mailed to every household with a registered voter; the state also publishes the text online. For every proposition, the guide provides a summary, legislative analysis, arguments in favor, arguments against, and two sets of rebuttals.

“It’s the secretary of state’s job to provide voters with the most information so they can be informed voters,” said McPherson spokeswoman Nghia Nguyen Demovic. The state has not yet estimated the cost of the guides.

California’s voter guides could become noticeably larger in 2010, when many counties will be required to include translations in at least one southeast Asian language. In many counties, ballots are printed only in English and Spanish.

The November sample ballot in San Joaquin County is the largest ever – 100 to 124 pages, depending on the district, or triple the normal size. Many pages are devoted to a proposed tax increase to pay for road and rail projects.

San Joaquin County Registrar Debby Hench said printing costs in a typical election are about $300,000, but the cost this time could be double. The Central Valley county paid $49,000 to mail sample ballots, $11,000 more than in June.

“We know they’re big and intimidating-looking, so we’re telling voters they need to pre-mark the sample ballot and be prepared when they go into the booth so they don’t have to read everything in the polling place – they will never be able to do that in a timely way,” Hench said.

California guides have been swelling since the ’70s, when candidates, voters and interest groups increasingly turned to state propositions to enact legislation.

The October 2003 special election, in which Gov. Gray Davis was recalled from office and replaced by Arnold Schwarzenegger from a field of 135 candidates, required super-sized ballots and guides. But at least it was light reading, with quips from candidates such as Hustler magazine publisher Larry Flynt, former sitcom star Gary Coleman and melon-smashing comedian Leo Gallagher.

By contrast, the November ballot lists candidates for eight statewide offices, 13 propositions and local ballot measures in nearly all 58 counties. Besides five bond measures, voters will determine the fate of propositions on notifying parents before minors get abortions, a cigarette tax to fund hospital emergency services and a tax on oil producers to help fund alternative energy research.

Kim Alexander, president of the Davis-based California Voter Foundation, created a jingle to summarize the maze of issues for voters. The catchy tune with banjo accompaniment includes the chorus: “It’s the proposition song/because the ballot’s too darn long.”

“Voting in this state can sometimes feel like doing your taxes,” said Alexander, who said voters should at least skim the guide – and, if rushed, vote only on issues that are meaningful to them. “You don’t have to have encyclopedic knowledge of a ballot measure to make an informed choice.”

On the Net:

To see the voter guide:

To hear the proposition song:

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