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Voting for stupidity

This is JOEL STEIN's first weekly column for the Op-Ed page of The Times.

YOU WEREN’T one of those suckers who voted last week, were you? Wearing that dorky sticker on your chest all day like you just got named school safety guard? The first clue that you’ve been tricked into helping people in authority keep their power is when you’re given a badge. It wasn’t as though the bus driver slapped an “I Rode in the Front!” sticker on Rosa Parks.

When you voted last Tuesday, you weren’t making the world better. Giving blood, volunteering, donating, buying a car without an alarm -- these are things that improve your community. At best, you got to promote your own belief system about eight issues, or -- more likely -- you promoted your belief system about one issue and randomly guessed on the other ones.

The main thing you did vote for was more voting. Every percentage point of voter turnout is another justification for continuing this voting fad that has taken hold of California as irrationally as Uggs.

I’ve lived in this city for 10 months, and I’ve already been asked to vote three times -- in a nonelection year. People in ancient Athens didn’t vote that much, and their entertainment choices were limited to stories they could make up about star patterns. The only justifiable reason for asking Americans to vote that often is to select our idols.

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And that’s not the only lesson California has failed to learn from Simon Cowell. The campaign for last Tuesday’s election cost more than $250 million -- the most expensive in California history -- and yet it was incredibly boring. You can’t expect us to show up to vote on issues that utterly fail to be compelling. There’s a reason you don’t vote at the end “Hope & Faith.”

Now, the 2003 gubernatorial recall, that was an election. The $60 million of taxpayer money reaped massive returns in entertainment. That kind of budget should only get you a “Daddy Day Care” or a “Hellboy 2.” But we got a Sacramento “Cannonball Run,” starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Larry Flynt, Gary Coleman, Gallagher, Angelyne, Peter Ueberroth, a porn star and a sumo wrestler. Plus I’m pretty sure that Dom DeLuise was playing that Cruz Bustamante character.

But as good as the recall was, no studio chief would have greenlighted these last three trips to the polls. In March, L.A. held a mayoral election between moderate Democrats who used to be roommates and agreed on everything. And, two months later, they had the guts to put out a sequel.

Then last week’s election was billed as a “special election.” If you have people gather for a “special” ballot, it has to be about something huge, like kicking someone out of the “Real World” house for sexual harassment. It can’t be about gerrymandering and regulating electric service providers. You couldn’t get people to pretend to care about this stuff if Bono threw a concert about it.

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If California is giving up entirely on representational democracy, we’ve got to sex things up for our regular monthly elections. As Karl Rove figured out by throwing gay marriage on every state’s ballot in the last presidential election, if you want people to come out, you’ve got to scare the crap out of them.

I’ve watched enough newsmagazine shows to know what those things are. Proposition 81 could require hotels to wash their bedspreads after every guest. Proposition 82? Two words: toxic mold. And, in the greatest idea for a beauty pageant ever, 83 would empower authorities to randomly select and abduct a cute, blond teenage girl for two months each year.

An election is supposed to serve a larger purpose than giving Gary Coleman a career boost. All that does is take an opportunity away from Quentin Tarantino. That little guy was a movie away from beheading Bruce Willis and then yelling, “That’s what I’m talking about, Willis.”

A good election starts an important political conversation.

At least the 2003 California recall was like watching pop culture explode all over politics, leading to an argument over the role of celebrity in democracy, a topic we’ve been dancing around since Ronald Reagan. And once we were paying attention, we started talking about incumbency and the power of special interest money. The second recall of a governor in U.S. history may have seemed silly, but it was really a populist uprising the likes of which we hadn’t experienced since Richard Nixon was hounded out of office.

All last Tuesday did was cause people to talk about how unnecessary elections waste money. Maybe that in itself was worth it. I just hope your stupid vote didn’t hurt the message.


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