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Considering ballot initiatives

Published: November 14, 2008
Section: Opinions

<i>ILLUSTRATION BY Alex Doucette/The Hoot</i>

ILLUSTRATION BY Alex Doucette/The Hoot

Last week, amid the euphoria of Barack Obama’s electoral victory and the reflection that America remains the land of unbridled opportunity, the voters of California added a provision to their constitution limiting the freedoms of one particular group. The passage of Proposition 8, an appalling piece of law which “Eliminates [the] Right of Same-Sex Couples to Marry,” certainly represents the nadir of direct democracy in America, and demonstrates once again the utterly execrable nature of the scarecrow of American elections, the ballot initiative.

Now available in 24 states and the District of Columbia, ballot initiatives are quite simply American democracy at its worst. They place before the public issues about which the public is manifestly unqualified to judge. Advocates embrace the simplest, most polarizing tactics, in order to frame issues in such a way as to produce a majority, Proposition 8 being a sterling example. Some $75 million was spent on advertising both for and against the measure. Proponents used such inflammatory tactics as suggesting that same-sex marriage would be taught to elementary school children, appealing to the most naked forms of prejudice.

Yet, while Proposition 8 is a particularly egregious case, it by no means exhausts the list of foolish, contradictory, and outright ignorant choices made by voters with the help of the ballot initiative. Let us consider California’s famous, or infamous, Proposition 13, which capped the state’s Property Tax rates a 1%. Property taxes are generally used by localities to provide for basic services, such as schools, electricity, police, and firefighters, as well as other social services. The passage of Proposition 13 forced cuts in all these areas. In order to make up the revenue shortfall, municipalities were forced to drastically raise sales taxes. Unlike property taxes, which are naturally progressive (the nicer the house, the more you pay), sales taxes are flat (everyone has basic needs, such as food and clothing), and thus sales taxes fall disproportionately on the poor and those least able to pay.

Next up: Proposition 98, which mandates certain levels of school funding. Sounds like a good thing, right? Except that Proposition 98 locks a portion of the state budget in to automatic education spending, depriving the legislature of considerable budgetary flexibility. And because states are required by law to balance their budgets, paying for one program requires cutting another. But wait, I didn’t mention where the bulk of the funding was coming from, did I? Proposition 98 forced the state of California to rob its municipalities of their remaining 1% property tax revenue and place that money in a statewide fund for education.

Lastly, Proposition 187, the final example in this parade of horrors, denied basic social services and health care to illegal immigrants in a hair-brained effort to keep them out of California. (Surely they flocked to America because they had superb social services at home.) Passed in 1994, Proposition 187 required background checks on anyone applying for state benefits if the authorities suspected the applicants were illegal immigrants. This included children being sent to elementary and secondary school.

The tragedy of these ballot initiatives is that, in each case, the voters made the short-term logical choice. Who likes paying high taxes? So let’s lower them. Isn’t education important? So let’s fund it. Why should we give services to those who don’t pay for them? Let’s not. And in each case, the voters, usurping the role of their elected representatives, approved measures deleterious to the state of California. So we come to the crowning act in the ballot initiative saga, when the voters choose, by a 52%-48% margin, to restrict the rights of their gay and lesbian compatriots. Having made their opinions known on issues of tax policy, school funding, and social services, Californians now see fit to pass judgment on the civil rights of other citizens.

As certain conservative commentators have pointed out from time to time, we are not a democracy – holding plebiscites on our policy toward Russia or how to reform social security – but a republic, where we elect representatives to (we hope) study the issues and come to a reasonable compromise. I simply cannot conceive of any reasonable person arguing that the average citizen of California has studied enough constitutional law to grasp the ramifications of his or her vote on Proposition 8. To be clear, I’m not asserting that I have such expertise either; such questions should be left to the courts, to individuals who have spent their lives studying these questions.

Having made my case, I can add but one sad, ironic note: this measure likely would not have passed except for the increase in Black and Latino turnout prompted by President-Elect Obama’s presence on the ballot. People, who, 50 years ago, could not even cast a vote in a number of states, last week voted in overwhelming numbers to restrict the rights of a fellow minority. So the wheel turns.