Ballot title

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A ballot title is the official, short, summary of a ballot measure that appears on the ballot. The goal of a good ballot title is to be a neutral summary that accurately conveys to voters the gist of what the proposed new law says or would do. The National Conference of State Legislatures says, "The ballot title and summary are arguably the most important part of an initiative in terms of voter education. Most voters never read more than the title and summary of the text of initiative proposals. Therefore, it is of critical importance that titles and summaries be concise, accurate and impartial."[1]

However, it is not always clear how one would neutrally describe the gist of what a new law would do.

As a result, ballot titles are fertile grounds for conflict and lawsuits. (See Ballot title litigation.)

The term "ballot title" can also be used to refer to short descriptions that appear adjacent to the names of candidates on ballots in some states and municipalities, in addition to information about the candidate's political party affiliation or status as an independent candidate.[2]

Differences between states

One way that states differ in laws governing the initiative process has to do with whether the ballot title is determined before signatures are collected, or after.

Another way that states differ has to do with whether the ballot title is determined by the government (which could be a commission, a ballot title determination board, the Secretary of State, or some other election official) or whether the ballot title is determined by the political organization that is advocating for the measure.

Pre-circulation ballot titles

States where the ballot title is set prior to circulation include:

Alaska, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Idaho,[3] Maine, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, North Dakota, Ohio, Oregon (In Oregon, the ballot title is set after 1,000 initial sponsorship signatures have been submitted) and Washington.

Post-circulation ballot titles

States where the ballot title is determined by the government after the signatures have been collected are:

Arizona, Michigan, Nebraska, Nevada, Oklahoma[4], Utah, Wyoming[5].

Ballot titles determined by proponents

In Florida and South Dakota, the ballot title is determined by the proponent, subject to legal challenge by opponents in court.

Impact of ballot title on election outcome

There is a general consensus that the ballot title can be highly determinative of whether a ballot measure wins or loses.

California journalist Dan Walters wrote in June 2010:

"It's not exactly news that from time to time, the Legislature attempts to manipulate the outcome of elections. Commonly, the Legislature, when approving bond issues and other ballot measures, writes official titles and summaries – and sometimes controls ballot arguments – in ways to make them more likely to pass."[6]

Vladimir Kogan of the University of California, San Diego, and Craig Burnett of Appalachian State University in North Carolina, delivered a paper at the September 2010 meeting of the American Political Science Association called "The Case of the Stolen Initiative: Were the Voters Framed?" Political scientists Kogan and Burnett, in the paper, bring some evidence to bear on the question, "Can elected officials and powerful interest groups 'steal the initiative' by shaping the language of the official titles and summaries of ballot measures to favor their preferred policy outcomes?"[7]

Highlights of the Kogan-Burnett paper:

  • "We find that ballot framing does indeed have the potential to influence outcomes in direct democracy elections."[8]
  • "We also show, however, that the effect of framing is far from absolute. Exposure to campaign information — in particular, endorsements from prominent interest groups — attenuates the effect of a framed ballot measure, helping voters cast reasoned votes."[8]
  • "The results suggest that, in a realistic campaign environment where voters are bombarded by millions of dollars in advertising and direct appeals from political parties and other elites, ballot measure framing is unlikely to change election outcomes."[8]

Cost of preparation

The Office of the Attorney General of California says that it costs them about $6,800 to prepare a ballot title and summary for each potential ballot proposition submitted to their office.[9]

Ballot title litigation

See also: Ballot title litigation



  • Allan Zaremberg of the California Chamber of Commerce filed a lawsuit contesting the ballot title that was written for Proposition 25 by the Office of the Attorney General of California. Zaremberg said, ""We've said for weeks that Prop. 25 is riddled with flaws, chief among them the ability of the Legislature to pass majority vote tax increases, and the title and summary perpetrated that deception."[12] On August 5, Sacramento Superior Court Judge Patrick Marlette ruled that the phrase in the ballot title, "retains the two-thirds vote requirement on taxes" might mislead voters into thinking that they had to vote for Prop. 25 in order to keep the state's supermajority requirement on tax increases intact and ordered that it be changed.[13] Proposition 25 supporters appealed Judge Marlette's ruling to California's Third District Court of Appeals. There, Judge Marlette's ruling was overturned.[14]
  • The Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association filed a lawsuit in California Superior Court on July 29 asserting that the ballot title prepared by the Office of the Attorney General of California for Proposition 23 was "false, misleading and unfair" and should therefore be changed.[15] Arguments filed in court said the title and summary should not refer to "air pollution control laws" because Proposition 23 does not apply to multiple laws and should not refer to "major polluters" because power plants and refineries are not the only businesses affected by the law, since emissions from universities, agricultural facilities, municipal buildings, and other private companies and citizens are also affected.[16] On Tuesday, August 3, Sacramento Superior Court Judge Timothy Frawley issued a ruling that took the side of the plaintiffs and ordered that the state government change the ballot title and summary.[17]
  • Missouri No Public Funds for Stem Cell Research Initiative (2010): Supporters of abortion rights (who are opposed to this initiative) filed a lawsuit claiming that the ballot title written by Robin Carnahan's office does not fully explain that the initiative, if approved, could bar abortions at public hospitals and possibly also put the state in conflict with Medicaid requirements.[18] Missouri Roundtable for Life, supporters of the initiative, said that Carnahan's title is biased and misleading in such a way as to artificially skew public perception against the initiative.[18]



Proposed changes


  • Roger Niello, a Republican in the California State Assembly, introduced California Assembly Bill 319 in 2009. AB 319 proposed to transfer responsibility for writing the ballot titles of statewide California propositions from the California Attorney General's office to the office of the California Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO). AB 319 would also have the LAO come up with the fiscal estimates for statewide ballot propositions, rather than the current system under which the fiscal estimate is compiled jointly by the Department of Finance and the Joint Legislative Budget Committee along with an estimate by the LAO.[22]
Modesto Bee: "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."[23] The San Diego Union-Tribune's editorial board referred to it as "Kamala Harris' dirty trick on California."[24] The editorial board of the Contra Costa Times wrote in an editorial, "Dan Pellissier, president of California Pension Reform, which presented the ballot initiatives to Harris, called her titles and summaries ugly, partisan and manipulative. He's absolutely right; union opponents of the measure couldn't have been more partisan had they written the summary."[25]

Candidate ballot titles

In some states, for some candidate elections, candidates also have ballot titles. These are sometimes referred to as "ballot designations" or "occupational designations." These designations are sometimes rejected by election officials or, if not rejected by election officials, may draw a lawsuit from an opposing candidate, if it is felt that the occupational designation creates a misleading picture of who the candidate is.[26]

In California, the section of the elections code governing how candidates may describe themselves on the ballot takes up 12 pages. According to the regulations, the ballot designation may not exceed three words and must represent the candidate's "primary, main or leading professional, vocational or occupational endeavors."[27]

  • In California in 2009, Andrew Wong, a member of the Pomona Unified School District, was listed on the ballot with his occupation identified as "teacher." Three Pomona Unified teachers and the Associated Pomona Teachers union, successfully sought a court order preventing the county election office from listing that occupation as his ballot title. A Superior Court judge ordered that his ballot title be "School board member, Pomona Unified School District" rather than "teacher." Professionally, Wong is an attorney who does some teaching in some contexts.[28]
  • A Los Angeles mayoral candidate listed his occupation as "Exorcist of Presidents."This was disallowed by election officials.[26]
  • Los Angeles City Council candidate Mitchell Englander listed his occupation on his ballot designation as "policeman," which his opponents complained was an overstatement, since he is an LAPD reserve officer.[26]
  • A 2010 candidate for California Attorney General described himself "Assistant Attorney General;" this was based on his role an outside counsel for the South Dakota attorney general.[26]
  • A candidate for California State Assembly who worked as a legislative aide described himself on the ballot as a "Consumer Affairs Commissioner."[26]
  • Two opposing 2010 candidates for U.S. Congress from the San Joaquin Valley described themselves as, respectively, a "rancher" and a "farmer," even though they were both primarily elected politicians.[26]

See also


  1. Preparation of a ballot title and summary
  2. San Francisco Chronicle, "Making democracy work in San Francisco," February 28, 2010
  3. Idaho petition requirements
  4. Brief of Oklahoma petition process';
  5. Wyoming laws governing the initiative process from the Wyoming Secretary of State
  6. Sacramento Bee, "California legislators again pulling election strings," July 19, 2010
  7. Sacramento Bee, "Study: Ballot measure wording affects outcomes -- sometimes," August 12, 2010
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 "The Case of the Stolen Initiative: Were the Voters Framed?," Vladimir Kogan and Craig Burnett, September 2010
  9. Sacramento Bee, "It's not easy to get an initiative on California's ballot," December 28, 2009 (dead link)
  10. The Miami Herald, "Teachers union aims to block attempt to lift ban on tax money for religious organizations," July 19, 2011
  11. Florida Capital Bureau, "FEA sues to block voucher amendment," July 20, 2011
  12. Sacramento Bee, "Ballot language for majority-vote budget measure misleading," August 6, 2010
  13. Contra Costa Times, "Key ruling throws out claim that Prop. 25 would protect two-thirds vote on taxes," August 5, 2010
  14. Capital Notes, "Budget +40: No, No, Oh All Right," August 9, 2010
  15. Mercury News, "Judge rules Proposition 23 ballot language must be reworded," August 3, 2010
  16. Los Angeles Times, "Proposition 23 backers sue over ballot language," July 29, 2010
  17. Orange County Register, "Rebuke of Jerry Brown good news for Prop. 23," August 3, 2010
  18. 18.0 18.1 Kansas City Star, "Missouri abortion initiative attacked from all sides," March 27, 2009 (dead link)
  19. One News Now, "Planned Parenthood pauses personhood effort," November 27, 2009 (dead link)
  20. Seattle Post-Intelligencer, "Booze battles: Liquor privatization proponents duke it out," June 3, 2010
  21. Publicola, "Liquor Campaign Challenges Liquor Campaign," June 3, 2010
  22. Rocklin Today, "AB 319 will reduce misleading information for ballot initiatives," February 26, 2009
  23. Fresno Bee, "It's up to Brown to get pension-reform results," February 15, 2012
  24. San Diego Union Tribune, "Kamala Harris’ dirty trick on California," February 12, 2012
  25. Contra Costa Times, "Ballot measures summaries should be written by neutral party," February 25, 2012
  26. 26.0 26.1 26.2 26.3 26.4 26.5 26.6 Los Angeles Daily News, "Candidates' ballot designations can be amusing, strange or some say ... misleading," January 15, 2011
  27. Sacramento Bee, "'Business' can be fighting word on a candidate's ballot listing," February 14, 2011
  28. Contra Costa Times, "Judge: PUSD board member can't call himself 'teacher' on ballot," September 1, 2009