Nov. 4, 2008 California Voters: A Jay Leno Man-in-the-Street Test

By Max Taves

There’s a lot of complicated stuff on next week's ballot, billions of dollars in spending contained in 12 statewide and a half-dozen local measures filled with extremely confusing wording. (See “How to Spot the Loopholes, Legal Doozies and Loose Phrasing in California’s Ballot Initiatives” or my article on the incredibly consequential legalese behind Prop. 6 or Paul Teetor's on the L.A. City Council's "Proposition B: The Sneakiest."

Inside the Official Voter Information Guide, California Attorney General Jerry Brown has written up short summaries of statewide initiatives so people don’t have to read the fine print — 60 pages of near-complete obfuscation in 10-point font courtesy of the best lawyers Sacramento lobbyists can buy.

But the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California, one of the state's top pollsters, has unearthed some serious reasons to doubt that next week's voters will digest even the ballot summaries, already dumbed-down for them by Brown.

In PPIC's statewide poll in October called “Californians and their Government,” respondents were asked, “Have you heard about infrastructure?” If so, the survey asked, how well do you know the term?

A full 30 percent said they had not heard about infrastructure. Another four percent said that had heard about it but “don’t know how much.” Hard to say which of those groups is scarier.

This wasn't a Jay Leno man-in-the-street test conducted on Melrose Avenue. More than 2,000 registered or likely voters were interviewed in English or Spanish. The margin of error is just two percent.

So you have 30 percent of 2,000 voters who don't recall hearing the word infrastructure. The same 2,000 were asked whether Californians make better or worse policy decisions via ballot measures than do the governor or legislature.

More than 60 percent say voters are “probably better” at it than Arnold or legislators.

Just the month before, 78 percent of respondents told PPIC that the wording of ballot measures was often too confusing for voters to “understand what happens if the initiative passes.” Yet 38 percent said such voter-approved initiatives should have the “most influence” over state policy. Not decisions made by the legislature. Or governor.

There are at least two scenarios where these respondents wouldn’t be out of their minds.

First, if this 60 percent from September hasn’t met the 30 percent from October who don't recall hearing the term infrastructure, it’s hard to blame the September group for over-estimating the intelligence of the October bunch. Second, it’s not entirely impossible that 30 percent of the legislature hasn't heard of infrastructure either.

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