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Your Voice 2016

Doing Your Homework

California’s biggest ever election guide might not actually help voters decide

Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

At 224 pages, the Official California Voter Information Guide is the biggest it’s ever been. It’s longer than “The Great Gatsby.” It weighs over half a pound. And it is headed to the households of California’s 18 million registered voters. The guide provides logistical information on how to vote and voters’ rights at the polls, links to candidates’ statements and their websites, and a substantive look at the 17 citizen-initiated propositions on the ballot this year, along with arguments for and against each one.

Putting together and distributing the guide takes a lot of effort—and money. Sam Mahood, of the Secretary of State’s office, said printing and sending the guide could cost Californians over $14 million. The idea is that it’s worth it, to make sure voters are aware of the candidates and the propositions on the ballot this November.

But will anyone actually read it? Probably not.

“People want to do what we would call a good job—that is make what they think is the right decision—but they want to do it essentially with the least amount of effort necessary,” said David Redlawsk, co-author of “How Voters Decide: Information Processing in Election Campaigns.”

The challenge is to enable voters to make so little effort when there’s just so much to vote on. California’s propensity for ballot initiatives—in addition to picking between candidates—contributes to the size of the actual ballot and, consequently, the voters’ guide. The state has a nearly hundred-year history of citizen-initiated measures where voters themselves can make public policy directly without having to rely on the bureaucracy of the state legislature. The threshold of signatures needed to get an initiative on the ballot in California is relative low and, according to the Public Policy Institute of California, use of this democratic maneuver has risen rapidly in the past twenty years.

The voting guide is intended to prepare Californians to make up their minds on all the questions before them. That means, this year, they’ll have 100 pages of arguments for and against the 17 different propositions. But reading the massive voter information guide would take quite a while. The online reading time tool Readtime estimated that tackling the document cover to cover would take 14 hours.

“For most people most of the time, there’s a lot more to worry about than politics,” Redlawsk explained. “Like, ‘Will the car start this morning?’ ‘Do I still have a job?’ ‘Can I put food on the table?’”

The Official California Voter Information Guide contains arguments for and against 17 propositions, covering issues as far ranging as the death penalty to banning plastic bags.California Secretary of State's Office

The Official California Voter Information Guide contains arguments for and against 17 propositions, covering issues as far ranging as the marijuana legalization to banning plastic bags.

Instead of reading all 33 pages of Proposition 64, which would legalize marijuana, along with its 10-page explanation, Redlawsk said many voters are likely to use shortcuts to make their decisions about ballot initiatives. But the shortcuts voters use to decide between candidates aren’t always readily available when it comes to ballot measures.

“I think initiative votes are potentially much harder for voters because the kind of cues they would normally rely on about party or personal characteristics of [candidates] just aren’t there,” Redlawsk explained.

Instead, Redlawsk said voters deciding on initiatives rely on cues from people, leaders, and organizations they are familiar with and respect. “Those cues, like endorsements, can be pretty powerful because they can substitute for the need to spend a lot of time looking at every detail,” he explained. In other words, they vote depending less on what the guide and the ballot initiatives themselves say than what people say about the ballot initiatives.

The voting guide also links to the photos and descriptions of the five presidential and vice-presidential candidates who will appear on the California ballot in November.

When choosing between candidates, Redlawsk and co-author Richard Lau found that voters who voted intuitively tended to make choices that matched their expectations and desires—“make what they think is the right decision,” said Redlawk, even if their decisions were mostly based on partisanship and endorsements by groups they trust.

But their research also contained some bad news for female candidates from the top to the bottom of the ticket: voters basing their decisions on intuition make assumptions based on a candidate’s image, especially if the candidate appears to be female.

With female candidates, “we found in other research we’ve done that people try to find more information about competence, as if they don’t automatically assume she is competent,” Redlawsk explained. “So those visual cues matter as well in ways that we might often wish they didn’t.”

While Redlawsk and Lau did not study the effect of the race of a candidate specifically, Redlawsk noted that race is a visible factor, and also does matter to people voting based on intuition.

Mahood, of the California Secretary of State’s office, said while this year’s California voter information guide is the longest there has ever been, there were efforts made to make it more voter-friendly, like including a quick-reference section explaining succinctly what a “yes” or a “no” vote would mean for the propositions on the ballot. Officials also had the 224 page guide translated into nine languages, with the Spanish guide being the most frequently requested translation in the primaries.