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This year's statewide ballot measures, like those in other recent election years, have been subjected to complex litigation not on their provisions, but how those provisions are presented to voters in official ballot titles and summaries.

Those who fight ballot language wars do so because they believe that how a measure is officially presented on the ballot could affect the outcome of the election. And -- in a masterpiece of timeliness -- two political scientists have written a 28-page research paper delving into that belief, one aspect of which is the Proposition 8 language clash.

Judges have ordered changes in wording in some cases, and left the official words intact on others. One judge, for instance, ordered that the summary of Proposition 25, the highly controversial measure that would eliminate the two-thirds vote on state budgets, be changed to eliminate the phrase "Retains two-thirds vote requirement for taxes.

It was a victory for opponents who said the measure could, in fact, allow taxes to be increased without a two-thirds vote. But very quickly, an appellate court overruled the judge and allowed the disputed words, written by Attorney General Jerry Brown's office, to remain on the ballot.

It was not the first time Brown's ballot measure verbiage had been challenged. Most famously, he declared that Proposition 8, the 2008 measure to prohibit same-sex marriage, would "eliminate" such same-sex marriage rights because the state Supreme Court had sanctioned such marriages. Brown's words survived legal challenge but Proposition 8 passed, only to have a federal judge, Vaughn Walker, declare it to be unconstitutional.

The two political scientists, Vladimir Kogan of the University of California, San Diego, and Craig Burnett of Appalachian State University in North Carolina, conducted that they call a "unique survey experiment based on three actual ballot measures that have appeared in several states to explore this question." They concluded that ballot summaries could affect outcomes, but "the effect of framing is far from absolute."

The surveys used for the study involved questioning 6,000 voting-age adults that were "representative of the American population."

"Exposure to campaign information -- in particular, endorsements from prominent interest groups -- attenuates the effect of a framed ballot measure, helping voters cast reasoned votes," they concluded. "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."

The paper, which is to be delivered to the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association in Washington next month, can be accessed here.


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