Be a policy analyst in the voting booth: tips for evaluating props

October 27, 2008

Record turnout is expected for this historic Presidential election, especially among young voters. This election is also an opportunity for the public to decide many complex issues in the form of propositions and initiatives. For these issues, sample ballots contain statements by proponents and opponents, but these brief statements are only a starting point. It is important for you to think through the ballot propositions for yourself as well.

One way to do that is to approach the issues as a policy analyst would, which means thinking about criteria to use in assessing policy options. Criteria can include:

Effectiveness-how effective will this policy or program be in addressing a need or problem? Is there a clear, important problem here?

Efficiency-how much will this cost? Is there a less costly alternative that would work as well or nearly as well? Will the benefits outweigh the costs?

Equity-who will be helped or hurt by this policy?

Practicality-is this something that can be readily implemented? Is there a danger that things will change radically in the implementation process, so that the outcomes are very different from what is projected?

Trade-offs-what are we giving up, if we adopt this policy? Will we have to raise new revenues or cut existing programs to fund a new project? (This is especially important for proposals that would require substantial expenditures; in the current budget environment there is no “extra money” sitting around to be tapped.)

Uncertainty-how much uncertainty is there in estimates of the size of the problem or the costs and benefits of the proposal? Could there be unintened consequences of a policy choice that would be costly? (Rarely do we have complete or unambiguous information for any policy proposal.)

For example, this November’s California ballot includes Proposition 1A on High Speed Rail. A policy analyst would ask: What economic and environmental effects might this rail system have for California? Which of these would be beneficial and which would be negative? Would the projected benefits outweigh the projected costs? Are the projections realistic?

In particular, is it realistic to expect that the additional funding necessary will be forthcoming? What happens if it is not? What other needs could California address with the same amount of money, and will those needs go unmet?

Among the other 12 initiatives on the state ballot, Propositions 5, 6, and 9 all entail very technical changes in law enforcement and criminal justice procedures. While it can bedifficult for a layperson to evaluate the merits of these proposals, some key questions you should ask of each initiative include: What costs the proposal would incur? What benefits can realistically be expected, and how valuable are these? Is there a better, cheaper way to obtain these benefits? What unintended consequences might arise from this change in the law?

As you prepare to vote, you may find yourself asking whether such technical questions should really be placed before the voters. Should complex issues be decided by a vote of the electorate, when in all likelihood we will not be able to make fully informed decisions? There are serious problems with an initiative system, but it does provide an opportunity for direct democratic decision-making, something that-according to public opinion polls-Californians are reluctant to give up.

But this is a question for another day. For now, do your homework and vote!

Be a policy analyst in the voting booth: tips for evaluating props was published on October 27, 2008 in Opinions

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