Jerry’s June 20 Miracle

Joe Mathews
Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)

It is not often that one witnesses an authentic miracle. It’s even rarer that a miracle takes place in the public sphere without people immediately remarking upon it.

June 20 brought just such a miracle to California.

Before that now-holy day, Gov. Jerry Brown had what appeared to be a significant problem. He had staked what’s left of his governorship on a temporary tax initiative for the November ballot. But the initiative had not qualified for the ballot at the beginning of the day.

And he was running out of time.

Indeed, the deadlines of California’s direct democracy seemed to put his initiative in jeopardy of not qualifying in time for November 2012 – pushing it back to 2014 or the next special election. The deadline to qualify for the November ballot – a firm, constitutional deadline – was June 28. But Brown had turned in his signatures so late that the county clerks, who process such signatures, were not required to verify the signatures, via a random sample, until July 6. So the clerks could meet their deadline with Brown’s measure – and that would be 8 days too late for him to qualify.

Now, in slow times, he might have had some confidence that the clerks would do things ahead of time. But the counties seemed to have too much to do.

They had to process all the ballots from the June 5 elections—because those would have to be certified on July 6.

And, even worse, they had to process via random sample a host of other measures – including three important initiatives were ahead of Jerry’s initiative in line. This included two competing tax initiatives that had turned in signatures more than a week before Brown had: Molly Munger’s temporary income tax hikes, and Tom Steyer’s corporate tax change. Munger’s initiative had a deadline for signature verification via random sample of June 27. Steyer’s was June 28. So they were certain to make the ballot if the sample verification worked. They also were thought to be faster to sample – since they were statutory and didn’t have as many signatures.

Heck, even California Forward’s budget reform initiative was ahead of Brown’s. It had a deadline for random sample verification of July 2 – after the June 28 deadline for making the ballot but four days ahead of Brown’s.

The morning of June 20 dawned, and none of these measures had qualified by random sample. So Brown seemed likely to have to wait, nervously, til the deadline, as the three other initiatives were sampled first.

Then the miracle happened.

The counties started to report their random samples – from Los Angeles and a half-dozen other came the sample verifications. And – Glory Be! – among the initiatives being sampled by multiple counties was Jerry Brown’s. So many counties reported so quickly that by evening’s end, Jerry Brown’s tardy initiative had qualified for the ballot – more than two weeks ahead of the random sample deadline.

But that’s wasn’t the whole miracle. Oh, no. Miraculously, the sample on the governor’s initiative was being done before the samples on the California Forward initiative, even though it had turned in an average of four days earlier. In fact, throughout the state, a number of counties sampled Brown’s initiative signatures well before other measures.

And that evening, the greatness of the miracle revealed itself in one other way. Somehow – only God knows how – Brown’s random sampling was turned in and certified earlier in the day than the certification of his two tax initiative competitors – even though the competitors had turned in signatures ahead of him, and had earlier deadlines for verification.

That would mean that Brown’s initiative would appear first on the ballot – before the other two tax measures, a position that is generally considered advantageous.

Praise the Lord!

Now, there are a few initiative industry insiders who noticed this, and refused to acknowledge the miracle. They wondered darkly whether the counties had helped the governor’s initiative along, since he’s a powerful man and was at that very moment negotiating budget trailer bills that could affect county budgets. They spread rumors that there was pressure from the governor’s team or allies brought to bear on the county clerks. Or on the secretary of state.

What blasphemers! How could they question such a miracle? They have no evidence at all. And while county clerks are under no obligation to check things in the order they come in (they only have to make the deadline), county clerks are honest administrators who wouldn’t bend to pressure from the powerful. Just ask them. I did, and three clerk’s offices that reported Brown’s signatures first assured me that they had done everything by the book. They themselves didn’t know how Brown’s initiative ended up first. The other counties haven’t said anything, probably because they’re left speechless by the miracle.

And the Secretary of State’s office informed me that they processed and certified the signatures in the order in which the numbers came in from the counties.

So it’s a true miracle, though not completely unexpected. In the Good Book, it is written: “he who shall pursue realignment shall have the winds and the waves at his back.”

I think that’s Deuteronomy. Or maybe Numbers. Don’t bother to check.

Just believe.

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