Thursday, October 16, 2008

California ballot: a perversion of democracy

I voted by mail yesterday. That is, I voted for Barack Obama, for Cindy Sheehan for Congress (to remind Nancy Pelosi she has constituents), for a local supervisor (I like Eric Quezada in District 9), school board members, community college board members, a judge, and a BART Board member.

That wasn't so bad. I also voted on 12 statewide propositions. No on Prop. 8! That's the one that would eliminate same-sex marriage. Also no more locking black and brown people away because they scare us, so no on 6 and 9. And no chipping away at reproductive rights, so no on 4. And no on the redistricting one -- nothing that comes from Arnold Schwarzenegger is likely to be a good thing. Come to think of it, I don't think I voted for any of them. Maybe the one about the size of animal cages...

And then there were the 22 city propositions: charter fixes, bond measures (yes on B for affordable housing), efforts to rein in PG&E (yes on H; that's a no brainer once you've been buried in "No" ads) and naming the sewage treatment plan after our departing 43rd President.

This sort of ballot is flat out insane. This isn't democracy; it's rule by fundraising and 30 second spots inflicted on the electorate.

Initiative politics reduces the incentives for legislators to work at long term planning and difficult policy making. Some person or group withenough money can trump their efforts by bringing their own policy preferences to the ballot. Legislators throw up their hands and seek funding for their next election contest.

And yet, historically anyway, we the people love the initiative process. A survey done in 2000 [pdf] found:

Seven in 10 residents think it is a good thing that a majority of voters can make laws and change public policies by passing initiatives, while less than one in four see it as a bad thing. Most Californians (56 percent) also think it is a good thing that a majority of voters can permanently change the state constitution by passing initiatives, while one in three believe this is a bad thing. A majority of Republicans and Democrats have positive impressions of the citizen initiative process, while voters outside of the major parties hold the most favorable views. There are no differences across regions, and both Latinos and non-Hispanic whites hold the initiative process in high regard.

The study did find some unease, but nothing approaching the massive distress with the process that would be required to change our electoral customs.

Of the various proposals I've seen for initiative reform, one I like a good deal would limit Constitutional amendment propositions to November election in years when federal candidates would be on the ballot. That is, we'd only get Constitutional amendments every two years, in elections that draw a fairly high turnout. It seems reasonable that a high fraction of the electorate should vote on changes to the state constitution.

A reform proposal I like even better is simply to put a limit of six on the number of propositions that voters could be confronted with from each jurisdiction on any ballot. That way I'd probably see six from the state and six from the city. People (most people) who live in a county jurisdiction that is separate from a city would see an additional six measures. That's still 18 of these things to try to understand, but it would be more manageable than the current menu of incomprehensible choices! Which ones would get on the ballot? Put them on in the order they qualify -- but make qualification expire after three years so an infinite number of prospective initiatives can't clog up the queue. Pretty rapidly we'd only get initiatives that had proponents who could wait a year or two to get to the ballot -- not a bad hurdle to add to the process.

It's not going to happen of course. California voters and its campaign industry is hooked on the initiative. Maybe the coming recession will lead to some cutbacks, but I doubt it. Initiatives remain a growth sector.


Kay Dennison said...

Death and morality by legislation would describe your ballot.

I'm glad I live in Ohio where the big deal here is a damn carpetbagger who wants to establish casino gambling here in such a way that he escapes without paying a nickel in taxes. Anyone who votes for it is a moron. Our state has been looted and robbed enough. I just hope this P.O.S. doesn't pass.

Casino gambling isn't going to save Ohio. Getting our industry back is and I haven't seen a damned thing in that direction.

Darlene said...

The average voter doesn't have time or inclination to study so many initiatives and I wonder how they vote.

Some initiatives are so misleading that it would take a lawyer to cut through the hype to understand them. The result is that many people vote without a clue as to what they are voting on and bad laws end up on the books.

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