Why Voting No by Default for Ballot Propositions Is Dangerous

A No vote does not always mean the status quo. Besides, where do you define the “status quo”?

I’ve heard over and over again: when it comes to ballot propositions, one should vote No by default. At face value, the idea is that one should keep the status quo because people shouldn’t be tasked with legislators’ jobs and we should discourage special interests from abusing direct democracy.

But espousing the strategy to vote No by default is dangerous and negligent. A voter should not follow this strategy unless they truly know what a No vote means for the measure. Those who advocate for this strategy, I assume, are trying to give a simple heuristic with the general message, “Be skeptical.” But, taken too literally, it can mislead voters.

The general ethos: we shouldn’t be voting on this garbage.

Admittedly, in most cases, the heuristic aligns with its intention. The ballot initiative process in California is often abused and weaponized by interest groups and industries. Through sheer force, they can bypass the legislature to get laws enacted that are often hard to repeal or modify. On this year’s ballot: Prop 22 was authored by rideshare companies such as Uber and Lyft to overrule a state law that would compel these companies to turn their drivers into employees. The rideshare and delivery companies have spent over $184 million to collect the signatures to get it on the ballot and spam you all about it. This is a far cry from the romantic, nobler idea behind ballot initiatives — that citizens can organize to veto the government or enact populist legislation.

The No-by-default crowd wants you to know: many of these ballot propositions are not as innocent as they sound at first. I fully agree.

With any heuristic, however, there are exceptions, and the thrust of this essay is that those exception are more common than you might expect.

Exceptions to No-by-default

The problem with voting no by default is that it ignores the context and history of why the measure is on the ballot in the first place.

1) Legislatively-Referred Constitutional Amendments

A common complaint I hear is, “Why are we voting on issues the Legislature should be dealing with?” or “We shouldn’t be doing the job of the legislature.”

The highest-profile measures are often citizen-initiated, which may lead to sentiments like this, but many props are legislatively referred, where voter approval is required.

Although this is complaint is legitimate for some propositions (e.g. Prop 24), it ignores the proposition where the public has to vote on it for it to become law. I’m talking about legislatively-referred constitutional amendments. Both the Assembly and the state Senate have already voted by two-thirds vote to put a LRCA on the ballot. They’ve done their job, and to change the state constitution, public approval is required.

In fact, of the 12 state propositions on the ballot this year, 4 are legislatively referred. They have already been voted on by the state legislature to continue.

For a third of the state props, a No-by-default strategy would go against the wishes of the legislature.

Caveat: Simply because it is legislatively-referred doesn’t mean that it organically started in the legislature. Prop 19, for example, was written by the California Association of Realtors and received two-thirds vote in both chambers. Opponents to Prop 19 say it is a self-serving policy change for realtors to make more money. Knowing the context is important.

2) Referendums

A referendum is a public vote on an issue that was already decided, either by the legislature or a previous instance of the public. Yes/No can be misleading here, and No-by-default may lead to the opposite of what the voter wants.

A nuance that can be easily lost when saying “vote no by default”

For example, Prop 25 — which replaces the cash bail system in California with a risk assessment system — is a veto referendum that upholds a law already passed by the legislature, or overturns it, preventing it from becoming law. Confusingly, a Yes vote on the veto upholds the law (abolishes cash bail), and a No vote rejects the law (keeps cash bail). In other states, a No on a veto referendum means that they want to keep the law in question (because one is saying No to the veto). It’s very confusing, perhaps intentionally, but that’s why you should do your research. No-by-default works only in certain states.

3) Dueling propositions

In 2016, voters were given a referendum: should we keep a law to ban plastic bags? A Yes meant “Yes, ban plastic bags.” No meant “No, don’t ban plastic bags.” Okay easy enough right? Well, to confuse voters, a plastic bag industry group put another measure on the ballot that asked: should we send the proceeds from paper bags to an environmental fund? Sneakily, more Yes votes on this second measure would null and void the first measure.

In other words, if you wanted to “keep the status quo” and ensure that plastic bags were banned, you’d want to vote Yes on the first, No on the second. A No-by-default strategy would’ve overturned the legislature.

Even the guy who wrote the article ‘Why I vote “no” on (almost) all California ballot propositions, even if I agree with them’ ended up voting Yes on this.

4) Repealing previous propositions

I understand the desire to keep the “status quo” but you have to recognize that the current status quo was built using ballot propositions.

Implicit in the argument is that the status quo is better than changing it.

This year, California voters get to decide whether we should repeal a ban on affirmative action in public institutions in California. That ban came from Prop 209 in 1996, and studies have shown that it created negative outcomes for Black college students. It is a contentious issue, but the only way to change that ban is through a ballot proposition. Prop 16 is also a legislatively-referred constitutional amendment, so I’m double-dipping here, but I simply want to point out that an implicit assumption with a No-by-default strategy is that it assumes the status quo is just fine. It sometimes is not.

If not No, then what?

Default vote YES? No.

To be clear, I’m not advocating to vote YES by default, either. I think the (literal) Nay-sayers would agree with me here: that would be idiotic and ridiculously reckless (and probably worse overall).

Default abstain? No.

Should you abstain by default? If that’s really the last option on the table, then sure. But even if you’re at the polling booth, reading these propositions for the first time, you can pull out your phone and read any number of quick voter guides to get a straight-forward understanding of what you have the power to decide. In California, you can spend as much time voting as you want, and you can bring and look up anything you need, including using your phone. 1min/prop ≈ 15min for state props and maybe another 15 for local measures. You’ll know quickly which issues are the most serious on the ballot and should spend an extra minute on.

By default: Be skeptical. Do your homework, minimally.

I’m advocating that you do something you can be proud of: the minimal amount of research necessary. You need five minutes each to understand the arguments, motivation, and history of each measure. Yes, I know — if you vote in California, five minutes of stuff you probably didn’t care about to begin with adds up quickly when there are often dozens of measures. It’s tedious. It’s annoying. And it certainly feels like you’ll never know enough, or that your single vote will won’t affect anything.

But, thanks to the numerous voter guides that have sprung up over the years, mostly from nonpartisan journalistic organizations, you can understand the whole picture without having to concentrate too hard. I run ballot.fyi, but many others do great work: KQED, KQED (audio), CalMatters, LA Times (video). All intend to educate you quickly so that we don’t vote stupidly.

In summary, stop telling others to vote No by default. These issues are nuanced. Many may take the strategy literally and vote No straight down the ballot, unintentionally voting against what they would have voted for if they understood the context. Voters should vote informed, and be skeptical by default.

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