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Politics & Government

With Contentious Measures On California’s Ballot, Lawsuits Over Language Pile Up

voting booth and ballot - Nixon CapRadio.jpg
Andrew Nixon

At least a dozen lawsuits are challenging the wording of ballot titles and summaries or the language for arguments set to appear in the state voter guide.

Ballot propositions offer a unique set of political battles every election cycle in California. But even with the election months away, another type of fight over initiatives has been playing out in the Sacramento Superior Court this week.

At least a dozen lawsuits are making their way through the court challenging either the ballot titles and summaries written by Attorney General Xavier Becerra or the language for arguments set to appear in the state voter guide.

The voter guide is scheduled to go to print Monday, compounding the urgency of the slew of lawsuits.

The legal challenges are an election-year “tradition,” says longtime Democratic strategist Steven Maviglio.

“It's almost an annual ritual that the attorney general gets sued, whether Republican or Democrat, because there is a wide line of latitude that the attorney general has in interpreting what's in the ballot initiative,” he said.

Maviglio is working for the No on Prop 21 group, which filed its own lawsuit over arguments from the opposition in the state voter guide. It does not name Becerra.

He admits while courts often side with the attorney general and other elected officials on these issues, legal challenges can be effective in drumming up publicity early in the campaign season.

“These are high-stakes measures that have potential impact of billions of dollars, so words do matter,” he said. “It's so important because the title and summary are often all that most voters read.”

In addition to the lawsuits, Becerra has taken heat from editorial boards at California news outlets for some of the ballot titles, including at the Los Angeles Times, which said he is “playing favorites”

This week, Republican lawmakers renewed calls to have the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office write the language.

“Time and again, the Attorney General has misled voters and tipped the scales in favor of special interests,” Assemblyman Kevin Kiley (R – Rocklin) said in a statement. He called for a hearing on a proposed constitutional amendment he sponsored that would transfer the responsibility of ballot titles and summaries to the LAO.

Maviglio adds that these lawsuits “usually are matter of fact,” but the number of legal challenges — at least a dozen — speaks to the amount of contentious issues on this year’s ballot.

He cited Proposition 22, which gig companies like Uber and Lyft are bankrolling to carve out exemptions for their drivers from California’s new labor law. The proposition is “probably even one of the most expensive ones we’ll ever see. The split-roll tax also falls into that category,” Maviglio said.

Proposition 22 backers suffered a setback when Judge Laurie Earl issued a tentative denial of their request to have the ballot title changed. They announced Thursday evening they plan to appeal the ruling.

Several other legal challenges have been met with similar tentative rulings, with a couple exceptions.

Judge James Arguelles agreed to changes to the ballot labels on Propositions 20 and 23.

Proposition 20 aims to roll back some criminal justice reforms and tighten sentencing laws on certain crimes. Arguelles ordered the proposition title and label to be changed from “Restricts parole for non-violent offenders” to “Restricts parole for crimes previously considered to be non-violent.”

In a tentative ruling Thursday evening, Arguelles also ordered a change to the ballot label on Proposition 23, which deals with regulation at kidney dialysis clinics, to specify which type of medical personnel would be required to be on-site

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