Building a Ballot

The process to get the ballot to voters has little room for passionate election arguments, but plenty for grammatical discussions and mason jars.

If the citizens’ committee does its job right, just a single, one-sided page is needed to understand the measures listed on those thick and overwhelming ballots that arrive in the mail.

While in other cities and states lawyers and lobbyists condense the basic facts of a measure for voters, San Francisco has a Ballot Simplification Committee that agonizes over every last word to make local measures comprehensible.

Political players know the importance of language so they, too, show up during the two weeks of meetings — especially for controversial measures like the police use of tasers. But the passion they bring is quickly tamed by an equally important factor: grammar.

“We need a verb,” declares Scott Patterson, a broadcast journalist who the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences nominated for the organization’s designated seat, at a meeting in March.

Committee members were changing the original digest provided by the City Attorney’s Office, which often has legal language and is torn apart. The line in question was trying to convey that officers would have tasers in holsters separate from their firearms.

With an empty seat usually filled by the San Francisco Unified School District, it’s less clear how well the group is adhering to eighth-grade reading levels. But the copy editing experience of Michele Anderson — who fills the seat saved for the Pacific Media Workers Guild — kicks in.

“ ‘Carry up tasers’ — that’s really awkward,” Anderson said. “There’s no modified antecedent.”

During these grammar debates, Department of Elections clerk Barbara Carr often backspaces edits she just made. Meanwhile, legislative aides, nonprofit attorneys, and taser advocates look down at their phones, waiting to say their piece after contributing to the dozens of formal letters sent to the committee.

The line in the final digest is eventually settled so that the list of taser requirements includes “Holstering on the side of the officer’s body opposite from the firearm.” Before the hours-long meeting, it read, “Officers would be required to carry their CEDs in holsters on the opposite side of their body from their firearm.”

The placement of things like semicolons may seem minute, but it can pre-empt misunderstanding in a way that voters may not be able to trace.

“It’s so silly, but those things matter because they change the interpretation,” says Ashley Raveche, a committee member seated by the League of Women Voters of San Francisco. “They change what the law could mean.”

Though the Department of Elections couldn’t provide an exact origin date, the Ballot Simplification Committee has shaped the digest since the 1970s. It typically has five volunteer members specifically nominated by the previously mentioned organizations, plus a non-voting member from the City Attorney’s Office to keep the legal communication accurate.

Committee Chair Betty Packard — another nominee from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences — has served on the committee since 1997, and knows of only a few other cities that have established similar committees. A 2016 investigation by The New York Times even found that election officials who write ballot initiatives in other states were paid by corporate lobbyists.

“Everytime I read the state handbook, I’m very proud of what I do,” Packard says. “Seldom are they totally unbiased.”

The strict shut-out of influence outside the legislative text is both a strength and weakness of San Francisco’s committee. In the instance of the taser measure, they are unable to provide crucial context that it would circumvent policy developed by the San Francisco Police Commission — which involves extensive community outreach on changes like these — and that it doesn’t provide a separate funding source for the devices.

As Packard repeatedly told the audience, the committee is limited to digesting what’s in the legislation that would be enacted. They receive dozens of letters with suggestions they mostly can’t take, like one from Supervisor Hillary Ronen arguing to use the Department of Justice term “Electronic Control Weapon” for the devices.

“There were a lot of emotionally charged ballot measures this year,” Raveche says. “You feel the passion.”

Besides numbering 12-page documents before submitting, Raveche suggests keeping the ideas simple and working within their parameters. Concerns about an issue like tasers can be addressed using the legislation itself to submit specific ideas for alterations.

The committee’s work is done for June, but voters and political players engage in the process for the November election with ideas — and they’re fully prepared to have passionate pleas on the cutting room floor.

“We consider ourselves a success when no one leaves happy,” Packard says.

Ida Mojadad is a staff writer at SF Weekly. |  @idamoj

Read more coverage of the ballot process:

June Ballot Measures Get Their Letters: Thanks to three large mason jars, the political ad blitz may begin.

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