Before I moved to California, I enjoyed voting. Once every four years, I thought very deeply for a very long time about the presidential candidates and then voted for the Democrat. I left the crappy high school gym knowing I had voted for a government that would bring progress and change, ignoring the fact that the high school gym kept getting crappier.
But once I got to Los Angeles, I learned that the East Coast version of democracy is weak. In L.A. we vote all the time, on everything. We've already voted twice since everybody else last voted in November. Thanks to the endless ballot-initiative system, in the four years that I've been here, I've voted on all kinds of stuff I have absolutely no understanding of: high-speed rail lines (yes!), port security (sure!), children's-hospital bonds (of course!) and how chickens should be housed (humanely and not by me!). I have considered running for the state legislature just because I think those guys vote less often. (Watch a video about voting in the 2008 presidential election.)
It turns out that letting me vote on stuff is a bad idea, for much the same reason that giving me a credit card was a bad idea: I love stuff and hate paying for it. And it turns out there are a lot of people just like me. On May 19, California voters knocked down all five of the budget-cutting and tax-raising propositions designed to save the state budget from being $21 billion short. We already had the worst credit rating of any state. Which means that if states were people, California would be Ed McMahon.
Looking to complain to someone about the stupidity of this initiative system, I called former California governor Gray Davis, who got voted out of office through a recall petition. "I'm not for scrapping the initiative process," Davis said, to my shock. "I believe voters generally make good decisions." Even a recall, it seems, can't stop a politician from kissing up to voters. Davis believes that the initiative system simply needs some tinkering and that voters need an attitude adjustment, which will come later this year when we lose our schools, jails and roads and full color on the state flag. "The great people of California believe they have a constitutional right to a free lunch," said Davis. "Other people just want one." Also, we Californians want our free lunch to be cage-free, hormone-free, dairy-free, gluten-free and extra annoying. (See the top 10 ballot measures.)
The initiative system seemed rational when it was launched in 1911 to prevent railroad barons from buying off the legislature. But lots of things seemed smart back then, like having Asians focus on manual labor. Now special interests spend $100 million on advertising and can send out enough troops to control an election, especially since the glut of elections keeps people with jobs and the ability to drive at night from showing up. On May 19, only 25% of voters turned out. Even the heated 2005 mayoral runoff between then mayor James Hahn and Antonio Villaraigosa moved only 29% of the people, and most of them were sleeping with Villaraigosa.
To fix the initiative mess, the Bay Area Council, a 64-year-old San Francisco--area business lobby, has proposed a new California constitutional convention, an idea backed by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, 2010 gubernatorial candidates Meg Whitman, Gavin Newsom and Jerry Brown and, polls suggest, two-thirds of voters. The 1879 state constitution is the third longest in the world, and it has more than 500 amendments. But to gather this convention, Bay Area Council CEO Jim Wunderman has to put an initiative on the 2010 ballot. "It's ironic, right? We need an initiative," he says, "to get rid of the initiative."
Wunderman had totally convinced me of his plan's merit until he told me the new constitution wasn't really going to get rid of initiatives. "If you tried to eliminate the initiative process, it would be DOA. We suggest you require that initiatives have to identify their funding source." I had never wanted Dick Cheney to take over an organization before.
But I believe every problem has a simple solution, and that solution is usually to do nothing. So I'm fully supporting Vote No on Everything, an organization started by Los Angeles doctor Reed Levine. You can tell this is a serious effort because the website sells T shirts. Levine realized the initiative system was faulty right after he voted for a $10 billion high-speed train and then wondered if $10 billion was a bargain or a rip-off for a high-speed train. His plan appeals to me, since if we vote against everything, our elected officials will be forced to deal with the issues themselves. Plus, it seems childish and obnoxious. So from now on, I'm voting no on my right to vote. Though I'm probably going to do it, at most, only once every two years.