The first thing an outsider needs to know is that California is not a monolith. Like most states, we have an urban/rural divide, and it plays out pretty predictably: staunchly liberal urban areas (SF Bay Area, Los Angeles), a few conservative urban enclaves thanks to wealthy suburbanites (Orange County) and/or a strong military presence (San Diego), aging hippies and libertarians along the rural coast and in the mountains, and a solid Red State interior. So there is a sharp political divide in California, but the lines are not all drawn where you would expect them to be. There are cultural differences between Northern and Southern California, to be sure. But they don't really show up in our political discourse.
Okay, now that's out of the way, I'm going to focus on the real subject of this post: California's proposition system, and why I hate it with the fire of a thousand burning suns.
(Technically, there are three kinds of propositions: propositions, initiatives, and constitutional amendments. There are technical differences between them, but on the state ballot they are all referred to as "Proposition N" where N is the identifying number, so I will use "proposition" as a generic term throughout the post.)
There are three ways for a proposition to get on the ballot. First, there are certain laws that, once passed by the state legislature then need to be approved by the voters, mostly anything to do with the state raising money: raising taxes, selling bonds, etc. Thanks to Proposition 13, the root cause of many of our current problems (it also froze property tax revenues at their 1975 levels, with predictably devastating effects on schools, infrastructure, and government services), most tax increases must pass with a super-majority (two-thirds of the voters). This means that, for all practical purposes, it is impossible to raise taxes in California. So we end up funding faaaaaar too many things with bond initiatives, which is already coming back to bite us in the ass in terms of state debt and credit rating.
The second way for a proposition to get onto the ballot is for the governor to put it there. In practice, this only happens when the governor is trying to do an end run around the legislature, like in 2005, when Schwarzenegger attempted to force his budget plan through by calling a special election and putting it to the voters. Of course, all his propositions failed, thereby spending millions of dollars of state money to ultimately accomplish nothing. (It was good that they failed, mind you, but I resented the fact of the election itself.)
Finally, anyone can put anything on the ballot by collecting the requisite number of signatures. Anyone, anything. Initiatives placed on the ballot by petition do not go through any sort of judicial or legislative review before they are voted upon. If they pass, they become law, either by statue or by amending the state constitution. It's possible to sue to keep a blatantly unconstitutional law off the ballot, but in practice, the state Supreme Court rarely even hears such challenges; they prefer to wait and see if the proposition passes first. So a lot of things end up in the courts after the fact, tied up in legal challenges for years, costing the state millions and millions of dollars and wasting all of our time.
One other thing. All such propositions, including constitutional amendments, only need 50%+1 to pass. Let me repeat that: in the state of California, we can amend the state constitution in almost any way you can imagine by simple majority vote, but to raise taxes, you need two thirds.
I think that's pretty screwed up.
Another issue I have with the proposition system is the sheer volume of issues that come before the voters. In every statewide election -- primary and general elections in even-numbered years, special elections as necessary in other years -- there are anywhere from five to ten proportions on the ballot. That's five to ten often-complex issues with far-reaching and unclear consequences that voters need to research and come to an informed decision on. And that's just the start, because every county, and most of the cities, can put their own initiatives on the ballot by the same means: legislative body vote (i.e. city council or the county board of supervisors) executive decision (i.e. the mayor), or by petition. Which can easily double the number of propositions, especially in San Francisco. In SF, I have seen as many as 20 local issues on the ballot, some years on top of more than 10 statewide initiatives. And it is just too much. How can we expect the populace to be informed voters on so many issues? Answer: we can't. So people will go on instinct, or on endorsements, or on advertising, which makes it scarily easy for a wealthy entity to buy the result they want. Like oil and tobacco companies. Or the Mormon Church.
I understand the appeal of direct democracy. But a state of 37 million people is too large, too complex, too diverse to run properly as a direct democracy. Even a city of 700,000 people is too big. It's government by amateurs, a problem exacerbated by California's strict term-limit laws. Every elected official in the state is subject to a limit of two terms, including the State Assembly, where members serve two-year terms. They barely get time to learn how to navigate the system, much less build coalitions and constituencies, and so nothing ever gets done. I agree that entrenched incumbent politicians who no longer feel beholden to their districts are a serious issue, but I don't think term limits are the answer. (Personally, I think actual campaign finance reform would do us a lot more good.) I do not believe that career politician is a dirty word. In fact, I'd rather be represented by someone who has decided to make a career out of serving the public. I want to elect smart people who I can trust to research the issues and then work with their colleagues to craft the laws, and taxation systems, that best balance the needs of everyone. That's what a representative democracy is supposed to be, and I wish Californians trusted the system to do its job.
But alas, unless something changes drastically, it is not to be. Every time anyone has tried to chip away at the proposition system, or Prop. 13, or term limits, they have failed. And more and more other states seem to be embracing direct democracy, and I wonder if the federal government can be far behind. And then I distract myself and start thinking about something else, because I find the prospect too horrifying to contemplate for long.
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