Hold your nose and vote


ABOUT THE BEST THING to be said about this year’s special election campaign is that it will soon be over. No one will really win, except for the political consultants who will walk away with pockets full of cash for raising and spending more than $200 million of other people’s money, and no one will really lose, at least not literally, because there are no candidates on the statewide ballot. The safest prediction is that, on the day after the election, California politics will be just as dysfunctional as today.

So why are we having this election? And why should anyone vote? The immediate answer to the first question is clear enough: Because Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger wanted it. The answer to the second question is that not voting would leave government to the special interests that finance these initiatives. The choices offered on the ballot require voter decisions, not a boycott.

All eight propositions on the ballot were put there by initiative petitions circulated by paid signature gatherers. The governor embraced four of them as elements of his reform of state government, including Proposition 76 to restrict state spending and Proposition 77 to take the job of drawing legislative and congressional districts away from the Legislature and give it to a panel of retired judges.


Schwarzenegger called a special election this year even though all the proposed reforms easily could have waited until the regular primary election in June. A majority of voters opposed this election, in part because of the estimated $50-million cost to the state and in part out of sheer exhaustion -- six statewide elections, including primaries, in the last four years. No one is quite certain why Schwarzenegger insisted on this, although he claimed his reforms were too urgent to wait six months.

The irony is that, according to opinion polls, the more the governor campaigned for his measures, the less voters liked them. So if he called this election primarily to give his 2006 gubernatorial campaign a head start, he may be disappointed. One recent poll showed his approval rating at a meager 33%.

As for reforming state government, only Proposition 77 promises to bring about fundamental, beneficial change in how state government operates, ultimately resulting in a more moderate Legislature that is not deadlocked in partisan battle the way it is now. Propositions 74 and 75 offer some hope for modest improvements in education and Sacramento politics.

But it’s not just the governor’s misguided intentions that make this election objectionable. It has carried abuse of the ballot initiative to an unprecedented extreme (at least until the next election). All the measures were written by a variety of special interests and put on the ballot because those interests were able to spend the necessary money. If they all pass, the state’s overburdened Constitution will be weighed down by even more details about what state government can or cannot do.

This would all be unbearably depressing were it not for one fact: The people of California do want change in Sacramento.

That’s why they kicked out Gray Davis and elected Schwarzenegger in the 2003 special election. And that’s why, even as they question the wisdom of this special election, they remain supportive of the initiative process. The perfect initiative has yet to be written. (Although the two-sentence proposition proposed by San Francisco State professor Jules Tygiel in these pages last Sunday comes pretty close: “There shall be no further initiatives. All previous initiatives may be modified by a majority vote of the Legislature.”) But initiatives do succeed in forcing debate, if often clumsy or distorted, on important issues.

What Californians do not want is political gridlock. They want strong leaders who can get results without resorting to the ballot, much as Schwarzenegger did in working with the Legislature in 2004. It’s alarming that now Schwarzenegger is promising to produce even more ballot measures next year regardless of Tuesday’s outcome.

For all its faults, Tuesday’s election presents voters with choices. These choices may be unsatisfying. But by staying home, voters would only further exclude themselves from the governing process. See you at the polls on Tuesday.