California – Too Much Direct Democracy

Ponder this: Is it better to pass a crappily written proposition that is generally a good idea in the hopes that the Legislature will amend it to make it better or only vote for Propositions that you agree with in their entirety?

It’s almost election day and after studying my ballot guides for countless hours, I still haven’t decided how to vote on all the state propositions or local ballot measures.  The feeling I get before elections in California is the same feeling I get before tax day – it’s looming, I know I have to do hours of work to prepare, and when it’s done, I’m not quite sure it I did it right.  I take voting very seriously and I always vote, but sometimes, I don’t vote on all the ballot initiatives because I don’t want to vote for something if I don’t fully understand its implications.  While the idea of direct democracy holds some appeal to me, I think it’s a terrible way to govern in practice, and it ultimately leaves me feeling disenfranchised, exactly the opposite of what it’s supposed to do.

A major problem with our system is that anyone with lots of money can get a proposition on the ballot.  You don’t have to be smart.  Your proposition doesn’t have to make sense.  You just need a lot of money and a pet cause.

Another problem is that campaigns are overly simplistic.  Trafficking = bad.  Proposition 35 = anti-trafficking.  Proposition 35 = good.  Proposition 35 is almost sure to pass this election.  Sounds good, right?  Who supports trafficking?  Well, turns out there are many, many progressive groups, including ones that provide services to trafficked victims, who are against Proposition 35 because it is poorly written and mostly focused on longer prison terms rather than prevention and services.  Why haven’t we heard more from these opposition groups?  Because no one wants to be the one loudly campaigning against a proposition that purports to stop trafficking!

Another problem is that I don’t have all the information and wouldn’t have time to analyze it if I did.  For example, Proposition 39 closes a tax loophole and I fully support that, but it also earmarks revenue for clean energy and jobs for the next five years.  I like clean energy and jobs, but does that mean that less money will go to schools or local services for vulnerable youth and the elderly or public transportation upgrades?  I don’t feel like I am in a position to make those tradeoff decisions on election day.  Do you?  An interesting note about Proposition 39 is that Assemblyman Perez authored AB1500 that would have closed this loophole and AB1501 that would have used the revenue to assist college and university students whose families earn less than $150,000 per year.  It passed the House, but not the Senate.  It’s interesting to consider whether he or hedge-fund manager Thomas Steyer who is financing Prop 39 is in a better position to determine what that funding should be used for.  Part of the reason why AB1500 didn’t pass in the Senate was that it got caught up in political trading.  Maybe that is the way the system is supposed to work – we can’t close the loophole until we can agree how to spend the money.  Maybe not.  Would voters feel any differently about Prop 39 if they were told that Steyer would make significant personal profits if Prop 39 passed?

There are some propositions whose every word I understand and fully support (ie Proposition 34 to repeal the death penalty), but I still don’t think that propositions are the way to make these changes.  Don’t we elect officials whose full time job is to look at the big picture and represent our interests?

Since it doesn’t look like anyone is funding the Proposition to end all propositions, I guess I should start amassing a fortune so I can participate in direct democracy with the rest of the billionaires.

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