As you Californians know, and as you non-Golden Staters may have heard, we have a statewide special election today. “Special election” is a misnomer of sorts, since we’re deciding not on any candidate but on a series of ballot initiatives that putatively address the state’s fiscal crisis. The state’s finances are in a royal mess thanks largely to the housing bust. The budget process has been subjected to a galaxy of special conditions thanks to decades of initiatives and ballot-box constitutional amendments. So the Legislature and governor are reduced to, and have let themselves be reduced to, the role of managers of the voters’ contrary and self-contradictory whims.
Expression of these whims may seem like a form of democracy. But it’s a twisted and extremely limited form of democratic expression. The simple arithmetic of our electoral process — about two-thirds of eligible voters register, and about two-thirds of the registered voters go to the polls in a good year, and decisions are usually rendered by a simple majority of those who cast ballots — guarantees a form of minority rule. And it’s a minority with an identifiable character: the active electorate tends to be older, whiter, more affluent, and more conservative than the population in general. Today’s vote will be even more skewed than usual. The guesses out there are that just 25 percent of registered voters will go to the polls. That means that the agreement of just one-eighth of those registered, and less than one-tenth of those eligible, will be enough to set state policy for years to come.
Not that I blame voters entirely. The propositions before them are singularly unattractive. The people are confronted with a palette of taxes, theoretical spending limits, special set-asides for education, and changes in the operation of the California lottery. They’ve been told that whatever the outcome, the state is about to undergo another round of deep budget cuts. To vote yes on most of these initiatives is to opt into a dim future; to vote no is to invite a dreadful one. The only measure people seem to really comprehend and support is one that will prevent state officials from taking a pay raise when the state is running a deficit.
California is one of those enterprises that is too big to let fail. It’ll be here tomorrow, next week, and next year, 38 million strong. It’ll have all its problems and its promise. But it’s stuck with a hell of an inefficient way of running things. It makes you think that some time soon it might be a good idea to consider tearing up the rule book we have and starting from scratch.