Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Ballot on steroids: the burden of direct democracy

Still haven't tackled those 31 propositions on your bloated November ballot?  I counted 17 state, 2 county, and 12 city proposals on my sample ballot – enough to drive anyone nuts. 

If you've been beating up on yourself for procrastinating  – STOP!  You are not the problem.  The problem is the way we're overusing and abusing the supercharged, direct-democracy ballot tools we call the initiative and the referendum.  

Yes, let's debate the value of representative democracy versus direct democracy.  And weigh the pros and cons of ballot-box planning.  Let's juggle reform options for the signature-gathering process.  And agonize over how to finance ballot initiatives and candidates.  But let's save it for another day.

Today, let's get down to business, starting with some facts about ballot propositions:
  • Ballot propositions are an exercise in direct voter control over the political process (call it direct democracy or government by petition).
  • Ballot propositions deal with laws and statutes – legislative matters.  Once a ballot measure is approved by voters, elected representatives cannot make even minor adjustments or modifications to it, much less rescind it (not even when changes are clearly needed) unless language in the proposition explicitly permits legislative changes.
  • Ballot propositions involve complex issues.  But during the campaign season they're invariably reduced to superficial sloganeering and misleading advertising.  
  • Ballot propositions are often opaque and deceptive, which makes it crucial for voters to be aware of who was responsible for putting a particular proposition on the ballot.  Look long and hard to identify the one(s) behind the curtain.  It'll be more of an eye-opener than relying on lists of supporters and opponents. 
Ballot propositions come in two forms: the initiative (for creating new law) and the referendum (for confirming a legislative act or reversing a recently adopted law).

Here are 6 ways that ballot propositions (initiatives and referenda) find their way onto the ballot:
  1. Registered voters can put a proposition on the ballot to initiate a new law or bond measure by submitting a written petition and a specified number of valid signatures. The term "registered voters" includes well-financed business groups, corporate entities, or your neighbors down the street.  On your ballot it's called an Initiative Statute.  (Measures B, C, D and State Propositions 51, 58, 60, 61, 62, 63, 64, 65, 66 are Initiative Statutes.)
  2. Registered voters can place a proposition on the ballot to initiate an amendment to the state constitution/municipal charter by submitting a petition and a specified number of valid signatures.  This is called an Initiative Constitutional Amendment.  (State Propositions 52, 53, 54, 55, 56, 57 are Initiative Constitutional Amendments.)
  3. Registered voters can place a proposition on the ballot to nullify a law (or portion of a law) recently passed by state, county, or local legislators by submitting a petition and requisite signatures.  This is called a Referendum or "People's Veto."  A People's Veto can be put on the ballot by corporate, development, or large business interests as well as by community activists.
  4. State, county, and city lawmakers can place a measure on the ballot to amend the state constitution/municipal charter, to propose tax and bond measures, or to amend a previous initiative.  These types of measures must, by law, be put to the voters for approval. This is called a Mandatory Referendum.  (Local Measures A, E, F, G, H, I, J, K, L, M, and N are Mandatory Referenda.)
  5. State, county, and city lawmakers can place a measure on the ballot that transfers approval of a particular piece of legislation directly to voters.  This would be called a Legislative Referendum. (State proposition 67 is a Legislative Referendum).
  6. State, county, and city lawmakers can place a measure on the ballot as a symbolic gesture that does not create binding law.  This would be an Advisory Referendum.  (State Proposition 59 is an Advisory Legislative Referendum.)
Okay fellow procrastinators, it's decision time.  Here's how I went about it:

First, I did a sniff test on each ballot proposition with questions like: Does a particular issue have too many moving parts? Could it have been resolved by our lawmakers without turning it into a ballot measure? Who is the main beneficiary?  Does it even belong on the ballot? Do I understand what it says or does it confuse the heck out of me? Is this a rat I smell?

Then I drew a big black dot in the NO oval next to the local propositions that failed the sniff test.  

The first to bite the dust was Measure B (Lilac Ranch: developer-driven ballot-box planning), then Measure C (Chargers Stadium: football planning fiasco), then Measure D (Cory Briggs-Donna Frye-John Moores: unsustainable packaging of numerous disparate issues). 

Then there are the 8 City Charter amendments that were put on the ballot by the City Council under the pretext of "it's only a cleanup."  The City Council and City Attorney made substantive changes to the City Charter without the benefit of a Citizens Charter Review Commission for ensuring balanced community input, analysis, and recommendations – an unacceptable way for city officials to do the public's business.  

There's more mischief here than meets the eye, which is why I marked NO on Measures E, F, G, H, J, K, L (a public Citizens Commission is the democratic way to go to when initiating changes to the city charter).

But I have a confession to make: I'm not as pure and ruthless as I sound.  I did mark YES on Measure I (to retain San Diego High School location at the edge of Balboa Park).

Finally, I marked a reluctant YES on Measure A (SANDAG  traffic/road/transit tax: transit also needs road work), YES on Measure M (Affordable Housing Limits) and NO to Measure N (Recreational Marijuana Business Tax: unwieldy, unworkable, unenforceable).

The 17 State Propositions also have us trapped by the shorthairs.  Only a few passed the sniff test.

Big fat dots in the NO ovals went to Prop 51 (school bonds: ignores equity issues),  Prop 53 (revenue bond approval: backhanded approach to block 2 particular projects re. water and rail), Prop 54 (legislative bill approval: undercuts open government with dubious regulations), Prop 60 (condom use: no way does this belong on the ballot), Prop 61 (state prescription drug purchases: benefits the creator of the measure, not the general public - Bernie Sanders didn't do his homework before backing this one), Prop 64 (marijuana legalization: creating this particular  industry belongs in the hands of legislators, not a popularity contest), and Prop 65 (charges for carryout bags: would eliminate plastic bag ban if 65 wins over Prop 67).

And just to prove I know how to say yes, I marked YES on Prop 52 (MediCal funding fees), Prop 55 (income tax increase on $250K individuals), Prop 56 (cigarette tax increase), Prop 57 (sentencing reform), Prop 58 (Bilingual education option), Prop 59 (advisory vote on political spending: sends a clear message that we oppose Citizens United), Prop 62 (death penalty repeal), Prop 63 (background checks for purchase of ammunition), and Prop 67 (plastic bag ban: affirms state legislation to ban single use plastic bags).

That's it.  Congratulations for hanging in there.  The rest of the day is all yours.