View Sidebar
Navigating California’s 2012 General Election Ballot

Navigating California’s 2012 General Election Ballot

October 20, 2012 6:17 pmComments are Disabled

Today I had some extra time to peruse the two massive voter information packets I received from California and San Francisco about the ballot measures in the November general election. This is my first time voting in a California general, so this was really my first intimate encounter with California state politics. The guides are presumably sent to every citizen in the state to educate them about their ballot options, which is a great idea to promote an educated citizenry and an active electorate. So in theory, I don’t object at all to voters being sent detailed information about all the candidates on the national, state and local ballots, as well as the state and city propositions.

However, in practice, this seems like an exercise in futility. For one thing, the guides themselves are dense manuals that number at more than 150 pages each; a chore to read cover-to-cover for any person. Each ballot proposition (there are eleven of them) is painstakingly deconstructed and explained, no doubt by committee, and the “For” and “Against” arguments are provided by representatives from each side–these representatives are also, no doubt, chosen by committee. The result is a sanitized, extremely confusing, mishmash of populism, legalize, and financial voodoo that seems to make both sides of each proposition look like the other side is an Orwellian nightmare and the alternative is the only solution to California budget Nirvana.

It would seem to me that if I, a reasonably intelligent and highly educated voter, have to get Wikipedia and reading glasses to navigate the legal and economic implications of eleven state propositions and seven ordinances in order to make a truly educated choice about the politics of the state in which I reside, I can’t imagine that the average California voter (or, shall I more diplomatically say, the California electorate) is making an informed decision about any of these measures. I definitely can’t imagine that more than a small percentage of voters are preparing for election day in advance. Most people will not know how they will vote for these measures before they get into the ballot box (which makes the populist wording of these propositions on the ballot even more suspect).

That said, even I had much trouble making decisions about some of these ballots. For instance, every proposition has a “fiscal impact” section, and it would seem that one should naturally favor the proposition with the least fiscal impact. However, in many cases, for me, this seems to matter little compared to the proposal itself. Because of my objection to state spending and taxes, I am glad to vote against Prop 30, Prop 37, Prop 38 and Prop 39, which all raise taxes or increase costs for increased regulation. But I am also in favor of repealing the death penalty and reducing overharsh prison sentences, so I have no problem voting for Prop 34 or Prop 36, even though they both require the state to spend money. What does this say about my fiscal responsibility? For one, the “fiscal” question is much less important than the economic question: how do spending and taxes promote or hurt prosperity? The state government is not just a balance sheet; the total budget has to be considered to be money taken out of the productive economy. A statement like “Increased state revenues through 2018-19, averaging about $6 billion annually over the next few years” does not mean that the voters are making money (which is what it sounds like). It means that voters are actually losing that money in the form of taxes.

I also had trouble supporting or opposing measures that all contain a mixture of desirable and undesirable elements, which are characteristic of the bills which they represent. Most laws are approved in chunks, even if various subsections may have nothing to do with the purported purpose of the law itself. The most insidious example of this (no doubt politically effective) practice is Prop 35, whose purported purpose is to increase penalties for human traffickers (who would oppose that?) but hides the fact that they expand the definition of human trafficking to include almost anyone involved in prostitution, and furthermore gives the state the power to monitor the personal internet usage of every registered sex offender, which includes people convicted of minor offenses such as public urination. As much as I would love to lock up slave traders for life, this is a really sneaky way to infringe on civil liberties.

Finally, some of these measures are straight wrong, or just illegal. City Proposition G reads as follows: “In Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the free speech provision of the First Amendment protects corporations as well as human beings…Proposition G would make it City policy that corporations should not have the same constitutional rights as human beings and should be subject to political spending limits.” Put simply, a city ordinance cannot take away federal constitutional rights. If Biloxi, Mississippi were to pass an ordinance that said “In Roe v. Wade, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that women have a constitutional right to an abortion…Proposition A would make it City policy that women not have a constitutional right to an abortion,” people would be up in arms, and rightfully so. The City of San Francisco doesn’t decide what is constitutional, especially after it has already been ruled constitutional. Even the San Francisco Chronicle says that the proposition is completely nonbinding and is only there to show the country where San Francisco stands on Citizens United. Does anyone not know where San Francisco stands on Citizens United?

I have known for some time that California’s political system is broken, with the oft-praised “Fifth Estate” of direct democracy making policy decisions such as the rates auto insurers charge. Not only is the general electorate largely uninformed about these issues, how easily can the general electorate be seduced by a measure called “Human Trafficking; Penalties” into giving up their own civil liberties? How easily can the populists in the state house put damaging and irresponsible regulations into the hands of the voters, to decide for other people what they pay for their auto insurance or how they purchase their food? Sending an information packet to the voters is completely useless if the decisions voters are asked to make are decisions voters shouldn’t be making. And if voters are asked to make these decisions, then California is setting itself up for failure. What weapon do the California voters have to protect themselves against each other? How can a minority voice in California not be drowned out by an uninformed majority? The whole reason we have representative government in the first place is to entrust our elected leaders to make policy for us (even if entrusting these people is, often, itself an exercise in futility).

If we are not able to even elect good leaders as an electorate, why do we think we would be able to make good policy as an electorate?

Comments are closed