Saturday, November 3, 2018

The despair of highly motivated voters

I’m what’s called a "highly motivated" voter.  Most of the people I hang out with are highly motivated voters.  We vote in every election.  

And I try to be informed.  I read and re-read the ballot initiatives… investigate and double-check the small print… pay attention to which group endorses which measure.  Sometimes, I gather friends and neighbors to comb through the ballot.  But let’s be honest: it still feels like a crapshoot.

The initiative process gives us regular citizens the option of by-passing our elected representatives (whenever deemed necessary) and taking matters into our own hands to make laws on our own.  It's a romanticized notion of vigorous direct democracy.

Wanna hear a dirty secret?  Ballot propositions are never clear-cut, transparent, or exempt from unintended consequences.  They demand value judgments – the same as all political actions. 

Wanna hear another dirty secret?  Ballot propositions have been known to send “highly motivated” voters into paroxysms of anxiety and guilt as they try to figure out the right answers to what are often trick or tricky questions. 

With 11 state proposals, 4 county measures, and 9 city initiatives on San Diego's current November ballot does it surprise anyone that “low propensity” voters (Latinos, Asian-Americans, African-Americans, ages 18-30, and low-income residents – statistically speaking) would rather skip the whole thing?  Haven’t you ever been tempted?

Here’s my attempt to ease the pain for voters who'll be giving it their best shot at their neighborhood polling places this Tuesday.  First, a few points to keep in mind when deciding your vote: 

  1. Sometimes elected state, county, or city lawmakers put items on the ballot when they want to sidestep responsibility.
  2. Often, powerful interest groups (with cash to burn) turn the initiative process to their own advantage.  With a multi-million dollar professional signature-gathering syndicate at their fingertips, private players can secure a place on the ballot for almost any one of their measures.  
  3. Occasionally, community or nonprofit groups successfully turn to the initiative or referendum to assert public interests.
  4. Maybe one day some reputable, civic-minded citizen groups will put their heads together and come up with workable ideas for repairing the initiative/referendum process. 

Now for a look at the State Propositions:

  • Propositions 1 and 2 are bond measures which (like all bond measures) require a vote of the public.  Both deal with special housing assistance needs and both seem deserving.
  • Props 3 and 4 are also bond measures.  Both found their way to the ballot through signature-raising petitions.  Prop 3 focuses on repairing groundwater infrastructure over-used by central valley agricultural interests and probably should be financed locally rather than statewide.  Prop 4 funds private and public childrens hospitals – a worthy cause, of course – but fundraising goals might readily be met through private endowments rather than long-term public debt.  
  • Props 5 and 6 were put on the ballot by private interests.  Prop 5 involves preferential property taxes and Prop 6 involves gas taxes. Both would undo important provisions in previous initiatives and both are unwise.  
  • Prop 7 gives the go-ahead to state lawmakers to fiddle with daylight savings time.  It's a popularity poll but why exhaust voters with yet another proposition to wrestle with?
  • Prop 8 is a labor dispute involving dialysis clinics that asks voters to butt in on one side or the other.  Vote No on items that don’t belong on the ballot in the first place.
  • (Prop 9 was mercifully removed from the ballot)
  • Prop 10 is the rare case of a worthy measure placed on the ballot by public-interest signature gatherers.  It gives cities the right to set their own policies and laws concerning upwardly-spiraling rents.  I say Yes.
  • Prop 11 (like Prop 8) is a labor dispute, placed on the ballot by private ambulance companies to get the public to intercede on their behalf on money issues.  It doesn’t belong on the ballot and gets a No vote from me.
  • Prop 12 returns to an issue involving the humane treatment of farm animals that voters already considered in 2008.  The Humane Society and other groups put this initiative on the ballot to tighten and enforce standards and restrictions.  The inflexible nature of propositions is a good reason why some dilemmas should not be legislated and controlled through the initiative process.  Rule of thumb: when in doubt… vote No.

Now for a look at the County Propositions:

  • Measure A is a “clean-up” Charter amendment that looks fine to me.
  • Measure B is a bit sinister.  It would require gerrymandering county district lines to ensure that a majority of Supervisors will have a personal stake in the County’s rural back-country (perennially under pressure for denser development).   No, not a good idea.      
  • Measure C wants voters to assume the role of fiscal taskmasters and put County pension stabilization funds in a lockbox.  yes? no? no? yes?  When in doubt… I vote No.
  • Measure D brings standard voting practices to the County by requiring a runoff by the two top winners in a primary election to run again in the general election.  Fine with me.

Finally, San Diego City Propositions:

  • Measures E and G are competing proposals to develop a huge chunk of city-owned property in Mission Valley at the site of (the former) Qualcomm Stadium.  Both are big on shiny promises but shockingly short on guarantees of what we’d end up with.  Land use planning by initiative, and surely on this scale, should be outlawed (if only…).  A hearty No on both of them.
  • Measures J, K, L, and M are charter amendments that (with varying degrees of enthusiasm) deserve voter approval. 
  • Measure N amends the municipal code (city's book of laws) to reinstate certain benefits to police officers.  It’s fine.
Oops… almost forgot the SD Unified School District:

  • Measure H is a screwy response to a set of needed reforms that were recently recommended to – but ignored by – the San Diego School Board.  So this one is a No.
  • Measure YY is the 3rd and largest bond measure to be put to the voters in the past 10 years (previous measures were voter-approved).  Because of their high repayment costs, 30-year bonds should be reserved for durable capital improvement projects.  Long-term bond borrowing should not be used for routine acquisitions and day-to-day maintenance purposes.  Truth is, I have never turned down a school bond measure.  This may be my first.
And that's it.  Congratulations for hanging in there.  The rest of the day is all yours.