California voters will confront crowded November ballot

LOS ANGELES (AP) — California is again testing how much democracy is too much, with voters facing up to 18 ballot questions in November that could end the death penalty, cut into the cost of prescription drugs and free marijuana smokers to legally light up in the nation's most populous state.

The cascade of proposals is certain to create confusion at the ballot box, along with fresh criticism that the state's system of direct democracy has run amok. Low voter turnout in 2014 meant campaigns needed relatively few signatures to qualify for the ballot.

Collectively, the proposals would cut into a broad swath of life in California, involving issues from classrooms to prisons, the porn industry to cigarette taxes.

Voters will ponder whether gun owners should be subject to background checks to buy bullets, if a state ban on single-use plastic bags at grocery stores is needed or whether adult film actors should wear condoms during shoots.

There are proposals to take on $9 billion in public debt to build schools, to repeal an "English-only" rule in classroom instruction approved by voters nearly two decades ago, and to require voters to sign off on huge construction projects financed by public debt, which could threaten the state's unpopular and costly high-speed rail project.

Questions on either repealing or speeding up the death penalty and legalizing recreational pot use could drive voters to the polls. But dense ballots can turn off others, warned Kim Alexander of the nonpartisan California Voter Foundation, which seeks to improve the way elections are conducted.

The logjam this year can be partially attributed to the Legislature, which pushed all the ballot questions to November. The list will appear alongside the presidential contest and races for Congress and the Legislature.

"People don't like to do things they feel they are not good at, and it can be challenging for California voters to feel confident about their choices," Alexander said.

Simply sifting through the details of the proposals can be a tricky, time-consuming task. For example, it will be a tough sell to get voters to read the fine print in the 15-page proposal to overturn a 2014 law to ban single-use plastic bags at supermarkets.

Then there's the so-called Children's Education and Health Care Protection Act, one of several proposals yet to be cleared for the ballot. In effect, the measure raises taxes by extending a post-recession, personal income tax increase for a dozen years that was sold to voters by Gov. Jerry Brown and other supporters as "temporary."

Brown, a Democrat nearing the end of his final term, has not endorsed it.

However, Brown did qualify his own proposal to allow earlier parole in certain cases for non-violent felons and let judges decide which juvenile offenders are tried as adults, part of his plan to cut the prison population.

While the array of questions can be daunting, long ballots in California are more routine than not.

Since 1912, state general elections have averaged about 18 ballot questions, according to the Initiative & Referendum Institute at the University of Southern California. The record for a cluttered election was set in 1914, when voters had to sift through 48 questions.

As of Thursday, 15 questions had qualified for the November ballot, either through petition drives or by approval by the Legislature, according to the secretary of state.

Along with the tax-increase extension, two other proposals were pending Thursday that would:

— Raise California's cigarette tax by $2 a pack to $2.87, making it ninth-highest in the nation.

— Allow the state to sell $3 billion in bonds for maintenance at state and local parks, a measure being contemplated by the state Legislature.

Voters typically find shortcuts to navigate long ballots, such as looking for endorsements from people or groups they trust, or finding out who is financing the proposal to judge its intention, said Raphael Sonenshein, executive director of the Pat Brown Institute of Public Affairs at California State University, Los Angeles.

"People in California know, when in doubt, vote no," Sonenshein said.