US democracy in action -- or gone mad?
I am currently baffled by my first sight of what a November 4 ballot paper will look like for a voter in Berkeley. This runs to two densely printed sides of paper. There are the various presidential candidates, plus the candidates for the House of Representatives, the Senate and the local assemblies and councils – and for the local court, the mayor and the local school board.
It seems sensible I guess to do that on the same day.
The baffling bit is all the "propositions”, state-wide and local. So far as I can tell, so long as you can get enough signatories together, you can put any proposition to the electorate. Whether they are well drafted or a loose rag-bag of problems, they will all be binding if passed – though they can waste an enormous amount of court time, as problematic or incomprehensible clauses are subject to legal challenge.
Next week, in addition to voting for their various representatives, the good burghers of Berkeley will be asked to vote on 12 state propositions, and 7 local measures. As one of my students said, the full background documentation on these stretches to more pages than the local telephone directory.
The most notorious of the state proposition is number 8, which seeks to rule that marriage can only be between a man and a woman: no gay marriage in other words. This is the one measure that everyone seems to be extremely well informed on; it has had lots of publicity, and Apple has just given a large donation to the NO campaign (a reminder which appears on the home page of most people’s computers round here).
By and large, the rest of the measures seem more or less mysterious to most people I’ve met. Take State Proposition 1a. This is a ‘bond resolution’ to raise money for a pilot project to open a high speed train link between LA and San Francisco. At first sight at obviously good idea. But is it really more than an excuse to dig a few holes at enormous profit to some private companies? Likewise the bond for the local children’s hospitals. At first sight a chance to put resources behind the state’s sick toddlers. But is it true that they haven’t spent the money they got in the last bond resolution? And is it mainly for the benefit of the owners of these private hospitals?
In other cases, the ostensible aim is quite different from the real purpose. Local proposition KK claims to require the approval of voters every time the local bus company wants to ask for ask for any dedicated lane whatsoever in any Berkeley street. The real purpose is to stop the introduction of a new “rapid transport system”, to get public transport moving quicker and decrease the car traffic.
I spent a wonderful evening with friends and colleagues here going through the propositions. Opinions were divided about what to do. Some thought you should vote no on everything just to show your disapproval of this way of running acountry. Noone felt they could get through the telephone book of information. The best you could do was look up the websites of organisation you trust (Greens, League of Women Voters…) and see how they digested the information for you. Even so, there wasn’t an unequivocal answer, None of us could really work out whether Proposition LL (referendum on repealing landmarks preservation ordinance) was going to damage Berkeley’s historic environment or not.
And – to a Brit used to trusting her elected representatives (more or less) -- the spectre of a Palin-style mob rule seemed only just over the horizon.
Proposition 1b: Should we invade Iran?