Five women whose words will spark debates 

They pore over the use of the word “or” in a sentence.

They wrestle for hours over whether a paragraph should explain that “retirement benefits” includes more than just “pensions.”

And if that sounds like nitpicking editing, know that political insiders refer to these wordsmiths as the most powerful force in City Hall you have never heard of, arguably as powerful as San Francisco’s lawmakers.

They are the five unpaid San Franciscans who are appointed every two years to the Ballot Simplification Committee, which for two weeks each election season has the grueling task of crafting the language voters will read before or on Election Day.

The committee, currently made up of five women, is tasked with summarizing pages of complicated legislation into, more or less, 300 words. These “digests” are what residents read in their voter pamphlets before casting their ballots. The digests must be fair, impartial and written at an eighth-grade level, election officials said.

Their wording is scrutinized publicly, typically by city officials, lawmakers, attorneys, lobbyists — everyone adamantly in favor of or opposed to a ballot measure.

When asked why she does it, committee Chairwoman Betty Packard shrugged and said, laughing, “It’s crazy. It’s just crazy.”

“There are days I wonder,” said Packard, who’s been on the committee for 14 years.

Three committee members are appointed by the Board of Supervisors and the other two by the mayor. They are nominated by various media groups, the school district and the League of Women Voters.

Packard and fellow members call it a civic duty.

“I think all of us have a real respect for citizen democracy,” said Ann Jorgensen, a retired English teacher who was nominated by the San Francisco Unified School District. “We want voters to be able to vote intelligently.”

The City Attorney’s Office prepares a preliminary draft digest of each proposition, and the committee edits and amends that during a two-week period of public meetings that concludes today.

The committee must, by law, complete its work no later than 85 days before the election, according to the San Francisco Department of Elections.


Power brokers

The five members of the Ballot Simplification Committee:

Betty Packard, chairwoman
- Nominated by the Northern California Broadcasters Association/California Press Women
- Appointed by the Board of Supervisors

June Fraps
- Nominated by the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences
- Appointed by the Board of Supervisors

Ann Jorgensen
- Nominated by the San Francisco Unified School District
- Appointed by the mayor

Adele Fasick
- Nominated by the League of Women Voters
- Appointed by the Board of Supervisors

Christine Unruh
- Nominated by the California Media Workers Guild
- Appointed by the mayor

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Staff Report

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A daily newspaper covering San Francisco, San Mateo County and serving Alameda, Marin and Santa Clara counties.
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