Think Again: California's political system is the root of the problem

We’re at that time in the political season where voters are getting hit at every turn with election advertising like being the target in a combat video game. It peaks every four years when elections coincide with presidential elections because more people turn out to vote. 

Whether you turn on your TV, get on Facebook or pick up your mail, you can’t avoid being bombarded by candidates or ballot measure committees to the point where they all sound the same. In the end, one common denominator tells the story, the money backing the campaigns.

The ballot initiatives are many and confusing. The fact is, while many people may think ballot initiatives represent the “will of the people” -- coming organically from the grassroots -- that is not the case.

All ballot initiatives need major funding to qualify for the ballot. To get the necessary signatures, you need paid signature gatherers. These gatherers are deployed by political firms specialized in this process.

The second part is persuading voters to support them, and that takes millions in advertising dollars. This adds up to the tune of $10 million to $15 million to have a shot at getting a ballot initiative qualified and passed.

The result is the only ballot initiatives that survive these hurdles are those that are funded by millionaires and billionaires, or those backed by major interest groups, both pursuing their agendas. It is just another way for lobbying organizations or rich businesspeople to pursue their agenda as an alternative to buying votes in Sacramento through campaign contributions.

The result is skewed mandates imposed upon the state that are not representative of what is necessarily good for the citizens and adding financial burdens on a state that is already teetering on default.

The ballot initiative system is a reflection of the other half of the problem. The way Sacramento runs is fundamentally broken. By the time a candidate actually gets to Sacramento, they are most likely pumped up with special interest money -- like political junkies -- to the point where they are beholden to those interest groups and their legislative agendas, especially if they aspire to a leadership position.

As an example, all you have to do is look at the contributions filed for your state representative on the Fair Political Practices Commission website and the picture becomes clear.

You’ll notice many of the same interest groups popping up: Indian gaming casinos, unions of all sorts, associations representing different kinds of businesses, etc. The amounts flowing from these groups far outweigh individual contributions from citizens native to the home district.

But once someone wins a seat, they become the horse all the entrenched interests bet on so the incumbent’s war chest grows, especially if they have been a good soldier in their first term.

Naturally, all this money leads that politician to pay close attention to those interests and to carry their agenda, sometimes over those of ordinary citizens. This is true regardless of political party. It’s a systemic issue.

In other countries, we call out corruption, pointing to bribery and kickback schemes. The difference with our system is that we have put into place a system of rules to the game that makes it more organized. But the net effect has similar qualities.

Decision-making has become distorted to benefit those who are funneling the cash into the system, whether that is to individual candidate campaign coffers, the majority party’s bank accounts, the “independent expenditure committees” of interest groups or, at last resort, into ballot initiatives.

The ultimate price for all this is paid by the average citizen in the form of constantly escalating costs due to government expenditures. The credit card account gets run up by representatives in Sacramento catering to those interests who have backed them and then they turn to the citizens to pay the bill.

Anyone with any sense can conclude that this system and approach is not sustainable. If anything is to change, it’s up to voters to send that message.

ZANKU ARMENIAN is a resident of Glendale and a corporate communications and public affairs professional.  He can be reached at

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