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 Library staffers Paul King, Ron Heckart, and Nick Robinson are the "men behind the curtain" of the IGS Hot Topics website. Together they've parsed all eight propositions on the Nov. 8 ballot - and lived to share their findings with the public.(Cathy Cockrell photo)

Special election 101: Enrollment is unlimited
IGS Library's 'Hot Topics' website helps voters fathom the Nov. 8 ballot propositions

| 05 October 2005

With a month of riveting news events behind us and a special election just a month ahead, many California voters are only now starting to focus on the Nov. 8 ballot, with its high-stake, well-funded contests. Citizens must analyze a fiercely contested measure on the use of union dues for political purposes (described by "yes" and "no" camps respectively as the "Paycheck Protection" and "Paycheck Deception" Act); a proposition on teacher tenure ("Put the Kids First" vs. "Punish New Teachers"); and a hard-to-parse scheme on spending limits and school funding ("Live Within Our Means" or "Cut School Funding"). Also in the mix are two competing proposals on prescription-drug discounts (Propositions 78 and 79) and abortion notification (requiring physicians to notify the parents of a minor who has requested the procedure); regulation of electric-utility providers, and redrawing California Senate, Assembly, congressional, and Board of Equalization districts.

All that adds up to a heavy homework load for voters, who are going to be looking for convenient and reliable assistance. One resource they can turn to is the campus Institute of Governmental Studies, where library staff have created another in their series of informative "Hot Topics" websites - this time on special elections in California, their history and process, and the Nov. 8 special election in particular. Visitors to www.igs.berkeley.edu/library/htSpecialElection2005.html will find not just a concise description of each ballot measure but links to take them much deeper: to official voter information, pro-and-con websites, newspaper articles and editorials, opinion polls, political endorsements, financial-contribution records, and nonpartisan analyses.

The ballot measures "are complex issues with many ramifications," says IGS library director Ron Heckart. His goal is to provide the public with a nonpartisan overview of emerging issues, with an eye to including the essential facts without "getting lost in the nuance and detail. We try to hit the high points," he says, "and then allow the newspaper articles and links to provide the detail." In this way, he notes, the IGS site complements the League of Women Voters' website (which does not include links to newspaper articles) and the California Voter Foundation's brief summaries.

Three library staffers - Heckart, Nick Robinson, and Paul King - divvied up the eight ballot measures, each tracking the history of several of the propositions (some of which had competing versions, at times) even before they qualified officially for the ballot.

Robinson - who took on Propositions 73 (parental notification for abortions), 77 (redistricting), and 80 (electric-utility regulation) - has found it fascinating to follow California politics "through the lens of a single issue" and to monitor a measure's fortunes in the press: how pro and con forces position themselves, who is endorsing or opposing the proposition and contributing funds to either side, and what the advertising strategies are.

Since launching the Hot Topics series in 2003, the library has created packages on more than 30 issues; the list includes high-traffic sites on the Electoral College and 2000 Florida recount, worker's compensation, Indian gaming, same-sex marriage, and medical marijuana. The Hot Topics feature on the 2003 recall election got more than 100,000 hits in the final weeks before the vote; it continues to be a popular site and will be important historically, Heckart believes. (That package can be found in the Hot Topics Archive, where the IGS library stores modules it's no longer actively updating.)

Many other emerging state and national issues lend themselves to treatment in the Hot Topics format - though statewide ballot propositions consume a disproportionate share of library staffers' work on the project, Heckart notes. Having followed these measures closely for years, he's inclined to join with those who question whether the initiative process (now an option in 24 states and the District of Columbia) is a good way to make public policy. "We have an elected Legislature with staff people and a committee structure," Heckart says. "They can delve into topics in a way that voters don't have the time to do. I wonder at the wisdom of substituting what should happen in the Legislature with these initiative campaigns, which cannot address matters with the depth and nuance we need."

One topic he tackled for the special-election website was Proposition 75, on union dues for political purposes. If that sounds familiar, it's because the measure is a new incarnation of Proposition 226 on the 1998 primary-election ballot, which would have required all unions (not just public-employee unions, as is now being proposed) to obtain their members' written consent annually before using union dues to support political candidates or causes. Defeated by voters after a fierce and expensive battle ($30 million by the two sides combined), it was that measure that Washington Post columnist David S. Broder dissected in his 2000 book Democracy Derailed: Initiative Campaigns and the Power of Money, calling the "initiative industry" - with its attorneys, political consultants, deep-pocket contributors, and paid signature collectors - "the most uncontrolled and unexamined arena of power politics." Speaking at IGS last week, Broder noted that nationally "people are paying attention" to California's upcoming special election - "in part because of [Gov. Arnold] Schwarzenegger, in part because of the initiative dealing with congressional redistricting, which has obvious national ramifications."

Journalists seeking to stay abreast of the 2005 special election, along with many California voters, will find much of what they need under the IGS Library's "virtual" roof. As of late last week, Heckart said, the Hot Topics sites for the 2005 special election had each received about a thousand hits apiece - with those numbers sure to increase greatly in the weeks ahead, he predicts.