California Follies

Today is primary day in California, and voters will be doing more than choosing party nominees for governor, senator, and various other offices. They'll also be voting, as they do in every election, on a series of ballot initiatives. Some are righteous, some are nefarious, and some are downright confusing. But if you're a voter in the country's largest state, you're called upon to do much of the work that legislators ought to be doing.

In fact, politics in California today contains just about every distortion and perversion of democratic processes and intentions that you could imagine -- using elections for things they should never be used for, the excessive power of money in politics, and the disaster that comes from supermajority requirements, to name just a few.

One matter being decided today combines all three of these distortions. It's called Proposition 16, and if you look at the "Yes" campaign's website, you'll learn that it's about giving taxpayers the right to approve any move by a local government to start a public electricity utility -- plainly a civic-minded effort to put power in citizens' hands.. And, as the website helpfully explains, "like most other major local special tax and bond decisions in California, this would require two-thirds voter approval." By which they mean not today's vote, but the requirement Prop. 16 would put in place.

So who might have an interest in requiring a two-thirds vote -- which is virtually impossible to obtain -- before a municipality could begin producing electricity? If you guessed "the state's largest private electric utility," then you're absolutely right. Prop. 16 is being bankrolled by Pacific Gas & Electric, which has spent a cool $46 million pushing the initiative. And in a handy coincidence, the municipalities that oppose it -- those that might someday want to offer their residents a public alternative to private power -- are forbidden by law from electioneering, so PG&E has the debate pretty much to itself.

Opponents of the measure have been able to raise only $90,000 to fight that $46 million advertising juggernaut. As a blog hosted by the Center for Investigative Reporting put it, "The opponents' entire budget is only slightly more than what PG&E is paying for Yes-on-16 advertisements in Sing Tao Daily, the San Francisco-based edition of the Chinese-language newspaper."

That's the thing about the initiative process -- what sounds profoundly democratic in theory turns out to be open to purchase by the highest bidder. A sufficient number of signatures to get a measure on the ballot is something you can basically buy with money (there are consulting firms that specialize in signature-gathering). You can spend as much as you want on the actual campaign -- there are no contribution limits for initiatives. Corporations like PG&E have figured out that if they can't bend the political system to their will through lobbying, the initiative process offers a whole other way to let their money do the talking. .

Nevertheless, despite PG&E's huge investment, Prop. 16 may well go down to defeat, mostly because of near universal condemnation of the measure in the press and the fact that the company is about as popular in California as BP is in Louisiana ("PG&E's name is just shit out there," one of the company's consultants told the Bay Guardian after examining the company's polling data). But what about all the initiatives that don't get as much attention?

For every Prop. 16, there may be a dozen initiatives no one is airing television ads about. And many Californians offer that as their primary complaint about the initiative process: : not the quality of initiatives but the quantity. Let's say you live in San Francisco. The city's Board of Elections mails out to every resident a voter-information pamphlet for each election. This Tuesday's is full of helpful information on the 12 partisan offices, three nonpartisan offices, and 12 initiatives on which voters are being asked to render decisions. Unfortunately, it runs to 91 pages -- and this is just a primary.

That's nothing compared to what the board sends out come the general -- in 2008, the pamphlet was a staggering 268 pages, trying to guide voters through their decisions on 12 state and 22 local initiatives as well as a multitude of elected offices including members of the School Board, the Community College Board, and the Bay Area Rapid Transit Board. Reports that anyone had actually read the thing could not be confirmed.

The idea that almost any voter -- much less all voters -- could make an informed decision on who ought to be on the board overseeing the regional mass-transit authority is just daft. And that's only the beginning. If Prop. 16 passes, it will be just one of many supermajority requirements under which California currently suffers, the most infamous of which is 1978's Prop. 13, which requires a two-thirds supermajority of both houses of the state Legislature before any tax can be raised. The consequence, of course, is that it is almost impossible to raise taxes -- yet people are still eager for the services government provides, which means eternal agonizing over budget deficits. Then there's the requirement that the state's budget be passed by a two-thirds supermajority (the product of another initiative), which in practice means that the minority party (the Republicans these days) can hold it hostage with whatever unreasonable demands it likes.

Add in term limits for state legislators (which means the Legislature is perpetually occupied by neophytes at legislating, a profession at which you can be good or bad) and popular election of state judges (a bizarre and indefensible American tradition), and you have a whole series of institutions and practices that look democratic on the surface but end up producing a system that barely manages to sputter along. California isn't the most corrupt state in the union, but it may be the most dysfunctional.

On the other hand, every once in a while, something like the initiative process can produce real reforms. For instance, Californians voting in November may well legalize the possession of marijuana for recreational use; recent pollsshow the state to be evenly split on the initiative. If it passes, at least they'll have something to help them tolerate their state's political follies with good humor.

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