Special Election

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.

Voting No

Conan the Governor forced an election on the state to give De Peepull of Kollyfawnya a chance to enact his "reform" agenda.  I’ve struggled with whether to give in to my utter dislike for Conan and simply vote against anything and everything he proposes — the "Whatever It Is, I’m Against It" approach — or to soberly weigh my responsibilities as a citizen and vote on the measures according to their merits.

I’d like to say I’m taking the high road. But I’m not. It’s mostly because I think that at best, Schwarzenegger has appropriated the language of latter-day populism to bully opponents; at worst, he’s a demagogue. There’s a fundamental dishonesty in his carping crusade against "politics as usual" and "special interests" — the catch-all term for anyone who opposes him, whether it’s Democrats, teachers, other working people, their unions, or union leaders — while he curries favor and raises funds from the state’s corporations and business interests. There’s a fundamental dishonesty in the way he calls for fixing the state’s finances while refusing to even discuss the tax side of the equation. There’s a fundamental dishonesty in his positioning himself as a moderate Republican who stands apart from the party’s conservatives; true, he’s pro-choice, and he straddles the fence on the gay marriage question. But just remember that during the last few days of last year’s presidential campaign, he went to Ohio to campaign for Bush. 

So, even having thought about some of the propositions and whether one or two  might deserve support (I’m thinking of Proposition 77, which would set up a less-partisan reapportionment scheme), I’m voting no on Conan’s whole list.

Today’s Good News from California

The good news from the Golden State is that Arnold Schwarzenegger’s poll numbers are down. Not that that has any huge significance in the cosmos or even in the world of California politics four months from now. It’s just nice to see our thumping lumpish bully-boy demagogue — oh, did I say I don’t care for his act? — have a rough time selling the rubes on his patent potions for what ails him and his buddies.

The amazing thing in the latest poll results from the Public Policy Institute of California is that Schwarzenegger somehow manages to lag behind Bush in the overall approval rating among adults surveyed: 38 percent approval for the president, 34 percent for the governor. It’s a stunning achievement, really, for anyone this side of the BTK killer to trail Bush in a popularity contest.

So, since people don’t love Arnold this month, the initiatives he’s forcing on the voters by way of a special election in November are all hurting. Specifically: an initiative to increase the time it takes public-school teachers to get tenure from two years to five; a measure to create a special reapportionment panel so the Legislature can’t gerrymander things anymore; and new budget rules that would give the governor more power.

But, and this is a big but: Arnold still has two months and change to make people love him again. He’s a Hollywood guy. He’ll have lots of money to spend on wooing us and convincing us that he’s our best friend, and we are our own worst enemies.