Molly Munger is right to bring suit to challenge manuevers that permitted Gov. Jerry Brown’s temporary tax initiative to leap up the ballot. Whether she wins or loses in court, it’s good politics to point out when your competitor is tweaking the rules to his advantage.
But, please, hold the outrage. Because Brown, as near as I can tell, didn’t do anything wrong and didn’t break any laws. He merely pushed county clerks to do their work ahead of time, and to prioritize his own measure. He was so successful at this that he ought to be giving lessons in how to get bureaucrats to complete tasks well ahead of deadlines. Perhaps the state could charge for his advice in this matter, given that we need the money. The only losers in Brown’s Ballot Leap are the county clerks, who, in giving Brown’s measure priority in their verification work, can count on being deluged with more phone calls in future election cycles from ballot initiative campaigns.
Legislative Democrats and Brown also didn’t break any rules in attaching a trailer bill to move constitutional amendments, including Brown’s measure, to the top of the ballot. The Democrats had that power, and they used it. Yes, this bad policy, since it will only encourage more amendments to the constitution, and thus deepen California’s governance crisis. Of course, at this point, it’s not exactly news that Brown is a status quo schemer, and decidedly not a reformer.
No, the real outrage is not what Brown did. It’s the ballot initiative system itself, particularly California’s peculiar version. By focusing on Brown’s manuevers as a case of political advantage-taking, we’re missing the point, which is how the manuevers show the system is broken.
The problem is not that a governor can vault his measure up a very long ballot to a place that may give him an advantage. The problem is that we insist on voting on long lists of ballot measures at the same time – and on ballots that are already long and full of candidate races.
It’s impossible to give proper deliberation and time to each measure when we vote on such long ballots. The fact that order matters enough for a governor to do what Brown did is plenty of evidence that the ballot is too long. (And yes, there’s irony in the fact that Brown is responsible for making the November ballot longer – by taking initiatives off primary ballots – and now finds himself fighting not to let his measure get lost in the long ballot. Even those with less Zen training could have seen that coming).
So why don’t we do something about it? Why not split the candidate election system from the ballot measure system entirely – and vote on the two things at different times? They are, after all, two different things: electing representatives, and legislating directly.
And why vote on long lists of measures at once? Why not do as the Swiss do and vote on two or three measures every few months? Each initiative would get its turn – and proper scrutiny. Ballot order would not matter. Yes, turnout would be low in such elections. But it’s already very low now. And at least those voting would have a better chance of understanding what they’re voting on.
And why should we be in such a hurry to get signatures in and qualify a measure? The life span of a California initiative is too fast. Brown’s initiative, which includes major tax changes and a constitutional obligation of certain tax dollars to local governments, could go from filing to enactment in seven months. That’s crazy fast, for major constitutional change.
But it’s par for the course in California. And that’s the problem.