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Issue Overload in the Booth

An educated professional from the city of Orange found herself with a dilemma on Nov. 2. A conscientious citizen, she spent the weekend before the election poring over the California propositions, then realized, too late, that she knew nothing about the local races.

The woman did what many do when faced with unfamiliar names on the ballot: She made a snap judgment. Up for Orange Unified School District board were the incumbent, who is a park ranger, and the challenger, listed as a teacher. Teaching seemed a more apt background for the post. “I deliberately didn’t vote for the park ranger,” she said, “thinking he was probably a Neanderthal.”

That, in part, is how 53-year-old Steve Rocco won his first public office, even though he didn’t campaign, skipped the candidates’ forum, never filed a statement for the voter pamphlet and now cannot be found by the school district or Orange County election officials.

A lot of voters in the school district are now feeling more than a little silly -- and, like the woman who shuns park rangers, don’t want their names published -- for choosing Rocco over incumbent Phil Martinez, father of three district children and president of a local PTA.

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Some picked Rocco because he was first on the ballot. Many residents don’t like unions, and Martinez was endorsed by the teachers union. Others figured Rocco, as a teacher, had to be more qualified than a ranger. (Rocco is credentialed as a teacher, but no one seems to know whether he has ever actually taught a class.)

One theme was common: They were so drained by the task of figuring out the other ballot items, especially the 16 state propositions, that many voters ran out of time and interest before considering the local races.

In the movie “Amadeus,” the emperor tells Mozart, “My dear fellow, there are in fact only so many notes the ear can hear in the course of an evening.” It’s a laughable argument for opera, but not for elections.

On Nov. 2, Californians had to wade through the good local funding initiative, the bad local funding initiative, the better primary reform, the worse primary reform, two bad gambling measures, and a host of ways to raise money for a social or physical ailment. Too many notes. How many people suffering from that California social ailment, issue overload, made wild guesses on propositions as well as on Rocco -- who, should he ever show up, might prove to be a thoughtful, creative trustee?

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We probably all felt a touch of voter fatigue this month. It’s hard to fault people for not keeping up with every little thing. But then, why not leave the ballot blank when you don’t know anything about a candidate or issue?

Perhaps we try too hard to be conscientious. Just as in school, there are those multiple-choice bubbles waiting to be filled in, and we feel bad if we don’t fill them. In this case, maybe there’s even a leftover bit of that old SAT test-taking strategy: If you can narrow the choices to two, chance a guess.

And then, someone has to save us from those Neanderthal park rangers.


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