Trust the Voters, Not the Reformers

John Wildermuth
Journalist and Political Commentator

Anyone want John Burton picking your assemblyman?

What about having Jim Brulte decide who will represent you in the state Senate?

Yet in a misguided bit of nostalgia for smoke-filled rooms, that’s exactly what’s being suggested by some reform-minded folks as a solution for low-turnout special elections.

Timm Herdt, a veteran Sacramento reporter for the Ventura County Star, wrote a piece recently about how a spate of legislative special elections, most sparked by incumbents moving up the political ladder, is costing the state hundreds of thousands of dollars for not much of a turnout.

But the solutions – either letting party leaders fill vacancies left by their own party or having the governor make an appointment from a list provided by the party – are worse than the cure.

The discussion, which Joe Mathews expanded on Thursday on this website, is another example of the problem too many political reformers have with the harsh realities of government.

People in California love the idea of voting, even if they’re not always enamored with getting off the couch and going to the polls. And they – and the leaders they elect – are not going to back any plan that even hints of taking their vote away.

Want some examples? Well, there’s the continuing call for “reforming” the initiative process, usually involving making it tougher to get voter-backed initiatives on the ballot or giving the Legislature a way to change and “improve” those measures.

Then there’s the suggestion that California would be better off if the state insurance commissioner, superintendent of public instruction and maybe even the treasurer were appointed by the governor and the lieutenant governor’s job eliminated altogether (Sorry, Gavin).

Groups like California Forward, California Common Cause, the California Clean Money Campaign and a host of other think tanks and government reform groups regularly come up with tons of suggestions on how to make the state run better.

And just as regularly, the proposals – even the good ones — go nowhere.

If you listen to the reformers, they’ve got all sorts of reasons why their cherished plans come to naught.

Maybe it’s opposition from special interests. Or the problem of raising money for a winning campaign. Or, all too often, there’s a feeling from good government groups that the great unwashed mass of voters out there just don’t know what’s good for them.

There’s more than a whiff of elitism from reformers on both the left and the right and a distinct suggestion that voters aren’t to be trusted.

Take, for example, San Francisco, where progressives a few years back were upset that their chosen candidates would do well in the general election, but get thumped a few weeks later in the runoff vote.

Their answer wasn’t to back better candidates who could use the intense focus of a two-person primary to spotlight their plans and views in a way that could attract voters left without a candidate after the first round of voting. Instead, they pushed through a new ranked-choice voting system designed simply to eliminate those pesky runoff voters who kept electing the wrong candidate.

Then there were the Republican legislators in Georgia earlier this year that called for repeal of the 17th Amendment, which allows a state’s voters to elect their senators instead of having them chosen by the Legislature.

Among the arguments in favor of the change was that outside financial interests and well-funded lobbying groups have too much sway in a statewide election and that corruption and influence would be lessened – and better, more representative senators sent to Washington — if it was left to legislators to make the choice (Pause here for hysterical laughter).

And, by the way, those damn voters all too often make the wrong decision about who should represent them.

Too many reformers hate politics, which they see as a grimy business that takes their well-thought-out ideas for government improvement and either tosses them out or mashes them up until they are unrecognizable. The give and take of the political process, where it’s often give a little to get a little, is notoriously unforgiving to complicated ideas or immediate major changes in the way the system works.

As far as voters are concerned, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. That’s why job one for any reform effort is to convince Californians that the system isn’t working. Only then can they start making suggestions about how best to make repairs.

It’s a voter-first process that both respects California’s citizens and realizes that any important changes that need to be done won’t happen unless voters both understand and approve of them.

It’s not a fast process, but change does come. It took years of false starts before California voters adopted reforms like ending the two-thirds vote for budgets, getting the Legislature out of the redistricting business and setting up the top-two primary to give voters in one-party districts a choice on election day.

One person’s reform is always another’s political disaster. But what all those measures have in common is that politicians and interest groups went out, pleaded their case to voters and convinced a majority of them to back the reform.

They trusted the voters and worked to sway them. Which is the way politics is supposed to work.

John Wildermuth is a longtime writer on California politics.

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