California 2020

We Californians are known for our ballot propositions. Twelve of them in this election. Too many!

I voted last week. Or at least I think I voted. The ballot went into a box that looked legitimate. I’ve never been fond of absentee/mail voting (except for those who have no other choice). In fact, I have never done it, being committed to the idea of going to an actual polling place. But, this year is… different.

I have some thoughts on a few of them. I don’t usually do “endorsements” in part because I wonder why anyone would actually care how I would vote (unless perhaps if it was an electoral system measure). But I want to mention a few of these that I feel somewhat strongly about.

Yes on 18. Back in the year I turned 18, I was of age to vote by the time the general election came around, but I was not able to vote in the primary. I remember at the time, there was talk of a change to allow those who will be 18 before the general election to vote in the primary even if their 18th birthday was between the elections. That is so very sensible. Finally, we get to vote this change into the state constitution.

I am genuinely puzzled that so many newspapers across the state have advised a no vote on 18. I understand why the GOP is against–it is an anti-democratic party (and an anti-republican one), so one of its core principles is: more voters = bad. But I can’t imagine any good argument against this, especially now that we no longer have primaries (except for presidential-nominating delegates). We have a two-round general election. If you are eligible to choose from among the final two, you should be eligible to vote to winnow the initial field. Simple as that.

I voted no on Prop. 22 (re app-based services). At the outset I sort of leaned yes. But the more I learned, the more strongly I was against. Whatever the merits of the policy proposal, the following is a real deal killer: Amendments by the legislature would take a 7/8 vote. I am against super-majority requirements for detailed policy provisions on principle, but usually such requirements are 3/5 or 2/3. But SEVEN EIGHTHS. Absurd! 

I also generally oppose initiatives that are mostly about one interest group trying to convince voters to do what it has already lost in both the legislature and the courts. (Which suggests the proposal is probably not good on the merits, either.) In this case, it is mostly a carve-out for a few specific companies. It’s not about the drivers, despite the slick advertising prominently featuring people of color and single mothers. It is about some companies that are obviously doing quite well if they are able to afford all this advertising. 

Here are some example of their advertising in the form of mailers we have received. See what I mean by their prominent featuring of individuals who are clearly intended to invoke progressive sympathies?

As I said, the measure is not actually about the drivers. It is about some companies trying to bypass the regular policy-making process. (Yes, an initiative is also part of the legitimate policy-making process, but we voters don’t have to go along!)

Also–going out of order here–I decided to vote yes on 15. The advertising from those against has really been over the top.

“Wrong side of history”? And scare tactics are always a nice touch: “homeowners are next.” So if someone comes back with a later proposition that will hurt homeowners, what can we do? Oh, I know. We can vote no on that (highly hypothetical) measure.

In the case of both 15 and 18, these are things I have been waiting to vote for my entire voting life! Prop. 15 creates a split roll for property taxes (a long overdue fix to Prop. 13 of 1978) and Prop. 18, as discussed above, lets 17 year olds vote in the first-round election if they will be 18 by the time of the November second-round election.

For any voters who have not yet made their decisions, I highly recommend the California Choices website. It has links to details of all the propositions, and scorecards of endorsements from newspapers, political parties, non-profits, and unions.

12 thoughts on “California 2020

  1. MSS, as a citizen of the other big common-law jurisdiction that has regular referenda (way behind California, though), I’m curious how you would evaluate the process. My own tentative conclusion is that referenda are on balance good (as long as it’s very clearly understood in advance that courts can, will and should intervene to “overrule democracy” if a majority votes for unequal laws that discriminate against minorities) with two caveats: (a) there shouldn’t be more than three questions on the ballot at a time, or else it confuses voters; and (b) questions shouldn’t involve long, detailed statutes, or else (again) it confuses voters. Rather, either (i) constitutional amendments or equivalent entrenched principles, or (ii) non-binding statements of policy would be preferable, because both are shorter and simpler.
    I realise that brevity may come at the cost of clarity. If a “short and sweet” statement is judiciable and entrenched, it means disputes will quickly go to the highest court. (Eg, the ERA – not a referendum process as such, but raises analogous issues). Even if it’s kept non-judiciable, that just shifts the interpretative disputes to the legislature (eg, Brexit and “What exactly does ‘leave the European union’ mean?”). But either seems less-worse on balance than asking the average voter to make up their mind on a dozen draft statutes. John Hart Ely noted three decades ago that one torts-law reform proposal was so complex that even his colleagues at the Stanford Law School were unable to agree on what it would entail. (Ely also commented, after Justice Rose Bird was unseated: “Here in California, where the future happens first, we remove our judges at the ballot-box but elect our legislators for life”).
    Put another way: if you could reform (or even abolish) the Golden State’s initiative and referendum system, which parts would you change?


    • The consensus over here in the British Empire is that referenda have a strong conservative bias. In Australia, it’s procedurally conservative: voters vote “No” if in doubt about changes. (Which is why a slim majority voted against outlawing the Communist Party at the height of the Cold War. That said, 90% voted to change to federal action on Aboriginal affairs, and 63% voted to support introduction of same-sex marriage, and both involved change). Likewise in Canada where the Charlottetown Accord involved a lengthy package of changes.
      In Britain, by contrast, in the past decade the electorate have shown they can vote both against sensible changes (AV) and in favour of stupid changes (Brexit) based on “IDIOCRACY”-style appeals to fallacies and prejudices.
      I can see arguments against voter-petition-initiated referenda – especially when these involve (A) legally binding, judicially-enforceable verdicts (B) on new laws, including constitutional laws, (C) whose text is then entrenched against amendment or repeal by the legislature (Note: NZ referenda typically fail at A and C; the UK’s AV referendum did not tick C; Swiss federal referenda fail at A for constitutional initiatives and at B for statutory veto referenda. NZ’s 2020 euthanasia referendum will be binding but not entrenched, like the UK’s AV referendum; by contrast, NZ’s contemporaneous marijuana referendum will be neither binding nor entrenched, but merely advisory).
      (* “binding” = enforced by the courts as long as it remains on the statute book. “Entrenched” = cannot be removed from the statute book by ordinary Act of the legislature. So, eg, a Swiss legislative veto referendum is legally cognisable, but not entrenched; Swiss courts will no longer recognise that particular vetoed statute as law – but neither will they intervene if the Federal Assembly passes a similar measure in future. By contrast, a Swiss constitutional-initiative referendum is entrenched, but not legally cognisable: Swiss courts would intervene to stop the Federal Assembly attempting to remove the wording from the Constitution without a referendum, but will not entertain the question of whether a subsequent statute is incompatible with that wording).
      At the same time, the idea that only the executive and/or the legislative majority can initiate a referendum offends the ideals of an open, non-self-sealing political process.
      So perhaps the best compromise would be to allow a sizeable legislative minority to initiate a referendum on a binding, entrenched constitutional amendment. Of course this would have to be repeated over time, as oppositions sometimes get frustrated and propose brain-farts that they don’t seriously mean. Say, 50% to propose a constitutional referendum right away, or 30% in two successive legislative terms. In a federation, a majority of the State or Provincial legislatures could also have power to initiate a referendum.


      • I suspect a problem with this would be that oppositions in desperate-seeming situations, like the ACT Liberal Party or the California GOP, may try to boost their own popularity and throw a wrench in the machinery of government by putting popular tax cuts on the ballot which reduce the ability of the legislature to cope with fiscal crises. Proposition 13 is perhaps the canonical example of something like this: while it wasn’t referred by a legislative minority, it’s conceivable to imagine a party doing so.


      • Yeah, one thinks of the federal Liberals in the mid- to late-1980s, getting bored/ desperate and coming up with stunts. One would want to insist it be on the agenda for at least, say, four years (and therefore survive at least two likely changes of opposition leader), with at least one election intervening. If needs 40% to propose it, it can be challenged to a vote (with 10 sittings days’ notice) at any time within those four years and is rescinded if 40% don’t reaffirm it. If limited to entrenched constitutional matters, hopefully it would be used for machinery-of-government issues in cases where normal party alternation in the legislature doesn’t always ensure accountability (eg, FOI laws, punishment of leaks) whereas a statutory initiative would be more tempting for the losing party to use to reverse its electoral losses over policy issues rather than “in’s versus out’s” questions.
        I concede that with the wrong sort of opposition, you could still end up with the “OVERSEAS DEBT TRUCK!!!” being entrenched in the Constitution, but governments, too, are not immune to the alluring odour of brain-farts (see: Great Britain, Conservative Party of, 1979-97, 2010-2015). I’d consider that a lesser risk than either (a) decades of one-party rule where a Mahathir or Bjelke-Petersen can shut down all the accountability mechanisms unhindered, or (b) shadow, well-funded private individuals with no political accountability being able to hire signature-gatherers and pay for heavy advertising. Opposition politicians, _while_in opposition (an important qualification: see BEATTIE, Peter Douglas, Political Career Of) are both (1) well-placed to know when the Government is gaming the rules to avoid accountability while also (b) concerned not to make the system completely ungovernable in the long term.


      • … Ie, it would basically function as a mechanism for opposition politicians to promise structural accountability improvements while they are on the receiving end of executive overreach, and to hold them to that binding promise, without having to hope that they either implement their promised changes very soon after they win government, or that they have among their ranks the rare John Faulkner-type figure who retains his principles and his commitment to accountability reforms even after a year or two with his own ministerial driver…
        In terms of requiring both the government and the opposition to agree to the basic ground rules of the contest, it would operate somewhat similarly to allowing constitutional amendment by a super-majority in the legislature , but would go further by requiring existing as well as new rules to have cross-party support. Clearly it would be silly to let the opposition unilaterally amend the Constitution, but not obviously silly to let the opposition veto a government-initiated amendment bill, or to appeal the matter to the voters.


    • All US states except Delaware hold referendums on constitutional amendments in exactly the same circumstances as Australia, although only California and Texas have larger populations.


    • If a polity holds referendums at all, they should be frequent. Otherwise they become giant by-elections and you have the embarrassing Brexit voters who, the morning after the referendum, said they wanted to give the government a good kicking, not leave the EU. Sometimes understanding arrives just a tad too late.

      There are transaction costs to complex rules. I’m sorry but all I see your proposals doing is making the process bewildering to the ordinary character in the street.


      • And just quietly, your proposals would not address the Brexit problem. The Brexit referendum was purely advisory, until about 5 minutes after the result when it suddenly became a binding referendum and even holding a second referendum, it was claimed, would be defying the will of the people.


      • Alan, to clarify, are you opposing all or most referend[ums], or are you conversely supporting unrestricted voter-initiated referend[ums]?


    • I generally would be inclined to agree with this principles, Tom. But I really don’t have strong feelings other than this one: The plural is “referendums”.


      • I advocate irregular plurals where available so one can tell the possessive singular in speech apart from the possessive plural. “The referendum’s outcome” sounds identical to “the referendums’ outcome”… even if one spells it American-style as “the referendum’s’ out come”.


  2. My winning percentage on these statewide measures was .500. Six of the twelve turned out how I voted.

    Now I wish I had kept score in past elections. I have no idea how good an outcome this is for me.

    When it comes to intensity of preferences, I fared far worse. The ones I had somewhat strong feelings about are in the half in which the voters went against my desires, including the three mentioned above.


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