By Sandy K. Johnson

Marijuana legalization. Abortion restrictions. Tax increases. Minimum wage. Affirmative action. Bond measures. Policing reforms.

These issues and more are on Nov. 3 election ballots at the state and local level, with the potential to impact millions of people.

A trio of experts offered advice for reporters on how to explain often-confusing ballot measure language to voters and how to follow the big campaign donations behind the issues.

There are primarily two types of ballot measures – citizen-originated initiatives as well as referendums that are “referred” to voters by state legislatures. Sixty percent of ballot measures are referendums, said Ryan Byrne, team lead for ballot measures at Ballotpedia.

John Matsusaka, executive director of the Initiative and Referendum Institute and a University of Southern California professor, said it is important for journalists to offer guidance to voters because ballot measures aren’t usually party-affiliated, Democrat or Republican. “There are no partisan cues,” he said, so journalists can help cut through the archaic and legalistic language to educate voters.

Byrne said some states offer voter guides, though they vary in quality. He suggested reporters approach ballot measures with these questions in mind:

  • How will a ballot measure change X or Y.
  • Who’s involved in supporting or opposing the measure.
  • How are words in the measure defined, i.e. a term like “small business” could have many definitions.
  • Consider bias in the wording.

There’s big money behind ballot measures, and Pete Quist, research director at the National Institute on Money in Politics walked through how to use the data tools at followthemoney.org. Quist said money tends to flow into most ballot measure campaigns late in the election cycle, making it challenging to report in real time.

By way of example, Matsusaka said $3.4 billion was spent on ballot measures over the last 20 years in just California (arguably the “king” of lengthy election ballots). In contrast, $1.4 billion was spent by candidates running for the state assembly and senate during that timeframe.

Billionaires like George Soros or Sheldon Adelson or Tom Steyer often underwrite pet causes through initiatives, although special interests and nonprofits also have reason to pour millions of dollars for or against a ballot measure.

Matsusaka said journalists could provide a public service by publishing about all the ballot measures in a state or locale – not just the sexy issues that tend to draw most attention.