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The California Ballot Is an Epic Joke

There are 17 statewide propositions this year—a recipe for confusion that benefits special interests and disempowers legislators.


All of my neighbors and I are about to get a free book in the mail. It contains lurid passages about sex and drugs and guns and death, though it lacks characters or a plot. And we’re all going to be quizzed on it in 45 days.

I’m talking about the California November voter guide, which this year clocks in at 224 pages, thanks to 17 statewide ballot propositions—the longest ballot in a quarter-century. This morass includes multiple initiatives on the same issue, proposals to extend deadlines that the legislature has routinely extended itself, and ballot measures that force future policies to be decided by other ballot measures. In 2016, the Golden State’s experiment with direct democracy has imploded, producing little more than outsized salaries for a handful of political consultants. Somebody needs to tranquilize this beast and end our misery.

It’s supremely easy to certify measures for the California ballot: 365,880 signatures for an initiative and 585,407 for a constitutional amendment, in a state with over 18 million registered voters. A robust signature-gathering industry makes qualifying propositions a matter of raising several million dollars, a barrier for ordinary Californians but child’s play for the special interests that rule the process, a perversion of former Governor Hiram Johnson’s vision of direct democracy.

This year’s proliferation of propositions springs from a 2011 reform. The legislature moved all statewide propositions to the general election, rather than primaries. It makes sense to have the greatest number of voters decide statewide questions, but it generated pent-up demand for the November election.

You may have heard about some hot-button proposals, part of the endless search for the perfect wedge issue to drive turnout. Prop 64 would legalize marijuana for recreational use, following the lead of states like Washington and Colorado. Prop 61 takes aim at high prescription drug prices, tying them to the lowest price paid by Veteran Affairs. Prop 63, backed by Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom, seeks to add additional gun safety laws, including strengthening of mandatory background checks, disarming of people ineligible to own a firearm, and permits to purchase ammunition.

The California legislature would likely advance all of these ideas. I know that because in some cases, they already have. California just passed six gun safety bills into law, building on the strictest regulations in the nation, including instant background checks for ammunition buyers. Governor Jerry Brown vetoed another bill because its text was included in Prop 63. Why are voters weighing in on something their elected representatives already handled?

In several cases, propositions exist only because the legislature cannot take action. Prop 58 would repeal a ban on bilingual education that passed via initiative in 1998; by law, it can only be changed with voter approval. Prop 55 extends a suite of taxes that helped balance the state budget in 2012, and Prop 56 would raise the cigarette tax by $2 a pack to fund health care for low-income residents. A majority of legislators probably support these, but tax increases require a two-thirds majority of the legislature—thanks to another ballot measure, Prop 13 in 1978. So supporters must go to the ballot to get around Republicans who refuse to enact tax increases.

Prop 52, extending a fee on hospitals that makes the state eligible for federal matching funds, has no such two-thirds requirement. In fact, the legislature has extended this fee four times in recent years. Why are voters called into service on this? I see no reason other that the legislature not wanting to further upset hospital administrators, thereby passing off the responsibility to somebody else.

Decades of propositions have created byzantine tangles for public officials. Money that flows in gets earmarked for specific funding, thanks to the ballot. Worthwhile policies must obtain voter support, thanks to the ballot. One right-wing businessman, Dean Cortopassi, wants to do this again with Prop 53, which would require voter passage of any revenue bond over $2 billion, creating a brand-new hurdle for long-term infrastructure projects.

Then we have the paired ballot measures, a recurring feature in California. If your political opponent puts something on the ballot you dislike, you put your own measure on the ballot, too, with the intention of confusing voters into opposing them both. For instance, Prop 62 would repeal the death penalty; Prop 66 would speed it up by eliminating opportunities for appeal. Props 65 and 67 deal with a ban on single-use plastic bags the legislature passed last year; 67 would uphold the law, while 65 allocates revenue from the sale of carry-out bags at retail stores to an environmental fund instead of to stores. The goal here is to get everything to fail, at which point the plastic bag ban goes away, despite the mandate from the elected legislature.

I have not even gotten to this year’s dumbest ballot measures! First there’s Prop 59, the “Overturn Citizens United Act,” which its own supporters admit will do nothing to overturn Citizens United. It’s an advisory measure to instruct the legislature to seek all efforts to overturn the Supreme Court’s campaign finance ruling. But here’s the punch line: The legislature put it on the ballot! So the legislature, which supports reducing the role of money in politics, constructs an initiative that will cost millions of dollars to tell them to do what they’ve already supported, as evidenced by the existence of the ballot measure. Supporters say Prop 59 is an organizing tool, but so is actual organizing.

And then there’s Prop 60, sure to be an everlasting source of Election Night jokes, which would mandate the use of condoms in adult films. As a Los Angeles resident I’ve actually voted on this before; a city ordinance passed in 2012. But here’s another thing: This is already state law. Cal-OSHA, the state occupational safety agency, requires condom use in adult films for worker protection; four production companies were fined in the last two years. But a gadfly named Michael Weinstein of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation keeps putting this on the ballot, and this time he wants to allow any state resident to bring a civil lawsuit against porn producers if they view condom-free content. Residents can win cash awards for spotting unprotected sex, creating a bounty hunter program for adult entertainment.

I could go on, but like California voters, I’ve run out of time. There’s a role for direct democracy, but spamming the electorate with redundancies, vanity plays, and things politicians were elected to do themselves overwhelms voters and produces terrible outcomes. Plenty of Californians carp about state government, but I can’t find one who truly believes it’s a good idea to become a state legislator once every two years. We hire people to do the job through elections, and we have plenty of ways to hold them accountable. Ballot measures decided by 30-second advertisements is a more effective way of solving contentious issues.

The most popular ballot measure in state history would be the one that limits all propositions to no more than six per ballot, bans multiple propositions on the same subject, and stops hamstringing the legislature by imposing budget requirements or mandates to go back to the voters. But that proposition would never get off the ground because it would put too many consultants who get rich off the current system out of work. To fix the excesses of direct democracy, it will take representative democracy.