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The Riggs Report: Ballot blockbuster

California voters face a complicated list of choices in November

Californians have a long history of pursuing, debating and voting on initiatives.

Gov Hiram Johnson helped start the process in 1911 as a means of countering the power of the Southern Pacific Railroad, and voters maintain a strong belief in this form of direct democracy.

A 2011 poll from the Public Policy Institute of California showed that 62 percent of likely voters felt decisions made by initiative are probably better than those made by the state’s elected leaders.

It’s a good thing California voters like the system so much, because they’ll have plenty of homework to do on what will be the most crowded November ballot in 16 years.

Secretary of State Alex Padilla has now certified a total of 17 measures for this fall. The crowded ballot is the result of several factors: the fact that all ballot measures now appear in November and not June, the lower threshold for qualifying measures this year due to low voter turnout in 2014 and the fact that this is a presidential election year.

The list includes a range of significant policy choices that will fire up emotions and fill the airwaves with campaign commercials.

It includes an extension of temporary taxes on Californians who make more than $250,000 a year, a new tax on cigarettes to fund health care programs and a measure to legalize the recreational use of marijuana. Backers like that idea, in part, because of the tax revenues the state would gain from regulating pot sales.

Other items sure to draw attention include competing measures to repeal and to strengthen the state’s death penalty law, a referendum on whether to keep or scuttle a state law banning the use of plastic bags, a measure requiring the state to pay less for prescription drugs, a $9 billion school bond and a gun control measure that imposes new regulations on who can purchase ammunition.

Gov. Jerry Brown also has a political stake in the election, with an initiative he is spearheading to reverse determinate sentencing laws. The measure would make inmates convicted of a nonviolent crime eligible for early release, depending on their behavior.

Political reform is also on tap.

Former state Sen. Sam Blakeslee, of San Luis Obispo, is backing a measure that would require bills to be in print and available for the public for 72 hours before a final vote can be held.

Blakeslee, who heads the Digital Democracy project at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, has been pushing for greater transparency at the Capitol.

The challenge for political campaigns is to engage voters and to minimize ballot fatigue, or a drop off in voting that often occurs when ballots are lengthy.

That’s a challenge that’s sure to be complicated by the barrage of TV ads and mailers that will be coming this fall.