Democratic attorneys general are the true masters of vote suppression

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California Democrats have in recent years complained bitterly about alleged voter intimidation by Republicans and have even gone so far as to open a “voter intimidation hotline” before the Nov. 4 election. Staffed by attorneys, the hotline would answer legal questions by voters who believed that Donald Trump supporters were trying to squelch their vote.

Evidence of any such intimidation was never forthcoming. And it’s hard to argue—with a straight face, anyway—that Republicans have mastered voter suppression in a state where Hillary Clinton beat Trump by 4.2 million votes, and where Democrats picked up congressional seats and snatched supermajorities in both houses of the Legislature.

There’s strong evidence, however, of a long-known pattern of voter suppression at the highest levels of California government. But instead of starting a hotline, the state’s Democratic leaders are aiding and abetting the effort. I’ve reported on the problem many times over the years, but fortunately, the matter received renewed attention in a CALmatters report published in the Los Angeles Times last week.

“More than 20 times in the last 15 years, political leaders looking to control California’s fast-growing public pension costs have tried to put reform initiatives before the voters,” reported Judy Lin. Yet none of the measures even made it to the ballot. Sometimes the problem was the fault of inadequate fundraising or signature gathering, but the main problem is more disconcerting.

“Some of the most promising efforts … ran into a different kind of obstacle: an official summary, written by the state attorney general, that described the initiative in terms likely to alienate voters,” according to the report. Facing such a large hurdle, backers ditched the proposals. As pension-reform backers say, these union-friendly politicians “put a finger on the scale, distilling the initiatives in language that echoed labor’s rhetoric.”

Isn’t this a form of high-level voter suppression, where state officials are accused of using their powers to squelch a vote to benefit powerful special-interest groups?

In California, the state attorney general is responsible for writing short titles and summaries of all proposed ballot initiatives. Most voters don’t read the long and legalistic details of the proposed ballot measures. Too few spend time researching the proposals on their own. Instead, voters typically—and understandably—peruse these short explanations and vote based on the concise information the state AG provides them.

Quite obviously the “Mom and Apple Pie” initiative is more likely to succeed than the “Throw Momma over the Cliff” initiative. Backers can challenge a bad title in court, but that delays the process and costs a lot of money. Moreover, such challenges are hard to win, given the deference given the attorney general. After getting a negative title and summary and “facing bleak prospects at the polls,” pension-reform backers “abandoned the campaigns,” according to the report. Why scare away voters when you can keep the vote from ever happening?

Attorneys general and their defenders insist that their titles and summaries are fair and that complaints are merely the result of disgruntled political activists. Union spokespeople praise the fairness of the pension-reform information, but plenty of observers from all political perspectives roll their eyes in disgust at this charade.

In 2012, a bipartisan group of pension reformers submitted two initiatives to the attorney general designed to rein in the growing costs of the state’s pension system. At the time (and to this day), such reforms have widespread public support, according to polls. The unions, by the way, are among the state’s best-funded political activists and had plenty of ammunition to fight the measure, had it made it to a general-election ballot.

But California Attorney General Kamala Harris, now U.S. senator, didn’t give both sides the opportunity to fight it out on the airwaves and at the ballot box. Her title for the initiative said the measure “reduces pensions for public employees,” even though it would not have reduced pensions for current public employees.

Even the Modesto Bee’s liberal editorial page was aghast: “Her office’s official description of the two measures read like talking points taken straight from a public employee union boss’ campaign handbook. Harris claimed the measures would reduce retirement income for current employees, which is not true. She also claimed that future government employees would lose survivor and death benefits, also not true.”

As I wrote for the Orange County Register at the time, “The summary also described ‘cuts’ to ‘teachers, nurses and peace officers, but excluding judges.’ That’s campaign rhetoric, not the dispassionate description of a fair-minded AG.” Polls show that the public has strongly positive views about teachers, nurses and police officers, so she apparently mentioned those job categories to create a negative view of the proposed reform.

When pension reformers were crafting another measure in 2013 and 2014, the Los Angeles Times penned an editorial imploring Harris to be fair-minded in the summary. “It shouldn’t be necessary to urge Harris or any California attorney general to be impartial,” the newspaper wrote. “Under state law, the attorney general is responsible for writing an evenhanded title and summary not ‘likely to create prejudice.’ Yet too often attorneys general, who are partisan elected officials, insert their own politics into the work.”

As it turns out, it was necessary to urge Harris to be fair, although it didn’t do much good. That initiative proposal, backed by former San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed, a Democrat, would have tackled the so-called California Rule. That’s a court interpretation (rather than an actual rule) that forbids agencies from reducing public-employee pensions, even going forward.

Pension reformers do not want to reduce benefits that public employees already have accrued. But that initiative would have allowed agencies to reduce benefits starting tomorrow. There’s no way to get control of the pension crisis as unfunded liabilities (the public-backed debt to pay for all the pension promises) exceed $1 trillion, under some estimates. Reforms for just new hires don’t do much until those new hires start retiring – in 30 years or so.

But Harris’ summary said the proposed measure “eliminates constitutional protections for vested pension and retiree health-care benefits for current public employees, including teachers, nurses and peace officers, for future work performed,” which reads more like a union-written argument against it than a fair-minded summary. It was, as expected, the kiss of death. Backers sued, but lost. As I mentioned before, it’s really difficult to win these challenges.

Various news reports showed that the Harris language closely mimicked information from a polling firm that was working on behalf of labor unions: “Note that ‘eliminating’ fosters a visceral negative response from voters,” according to the firm’s memo. “Over 50 percent are VERY unfavorable to ‘Eliminating Police, Firefighters, and Other Public Employees’ Vested Pension Benefits’ …”

It’s not just Harris who used her power to keep these initiatives from getting before voters. Democratic Attorney General Bill Lockyer, another union ally and Harris’ predecessor, killed a pension-reform plan by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger by claiming that a fairly modest measure would have robbed future police officers of their death and disability benefits.

The reform measure never mentioned any such thing, but Lockyer was able to make that argument because “the governor’s advisors appeared to have overlooked a key detail: death and disability benefits were tied to guaranteed details,” according to CALmatters. It was a dubious argument, but Lockyer’s approach enabled unions to energize “widows of slain police officers to speak out against Schwarzenegger’s proposal.”

For years, then, it seems that Democratic attorneys general have been using their power to kill pension-reform initiatives that offend their union constituencies by using their official power to write titles and summaries. It’s less obvious than sending goons to polling places to scare away voters, but it’s far more effective at squelching the vote. With more and more California local governments sinking under the weight of pension obligations, it may be time to allow democracy (with a small-d) to work.


Image by Maksim Kabakou

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