I sat down and had a conversation with myself about why my voting guide is the size of the white pages or the September issue of Vogue, and what that says about California democracy. Welcome to another episode of my talk show, “Ezekiel & Kweku,” where I am my own cohost.
Ezekiel: We're about a week away from the election.
Kweku: I know. I literally have a countdown app on my phone.
Ezekiel: I can't decide whether I'm going to, like, go out somewhere and celebrate on November 9 ... or drag my body into a shallow gutter and breathe my last breaths.
Kweku: Well, you have six days to figure it out. And you know what else you have six days to figure out? How you're going to vote on all these California propositions!
Ezekiel: Incredible segue.
Ezekiel: But ... that's ridiculous. Why on earth is it that long?
Kweku: You want the literal “why” or the larger “why”?
Ezekiel: Let's start from the literal “why” and work our way out. Literally: Why?
Kweku: Literally why: There are 17 propositions on the ballot. That's not itself a record number, but some of the propositions are very long. Proposition 63, about gun control, is 16 pages long. Even if you don't read the law itself and just read the summary and for/against arguments, that's still six pages. The weed legalization proposition, which should by all rights be proposition 69 but due to numbering is proposition 64, is more than 30 pages long.
Ezekiel: OK. But why are there so many propositions?
Kweku: Well, for one thing, it's very easy to get a proposition on the ballot. The number of signatures needed is equal to 5 percent of the number of people who voted in the last gubernatorial election. That translates into just over 360,000 signatures. In a state that has almost 18 million voters, that's basically nothing. If you're a wealthy person and/or have wealthy friends, you can hire enough signature-gatherers to force people to vote on your whim, easily.
Ezekiel: Must be nice.
Kweku: To be rich? Usually is. Unless the pitchforks and guillotines come out, I guess.
Ezekiel: But why doesn't the legislature take care of some of this stuff? Isn't that what they're for? Why do I have to play legislator for a day?
Kweku: Ahh ... that's the larger “why.” Well, they're kind of hamstrung in some cases. A couple of these laws are to repeal older propositions, and you can only repeal a proposition with another proposition.
Ezekiel: Like some kinda weird fantasy board game or something.
Kweku: Yeah, it's very Dungeons and Dragons. For instance, Proposition 58 is to repeal 1998's Proposition 227, which banned bilingual education in California public schools.
Ezekiel: Sounds like that would target Mexican immigrants and prevent them from being able to get a decent education. Kinda xenophobic, don't you think?
Kweku: Yeah. Good thing we're not racist anymore! We'd never target Mexican immigrants for political reasons! Haha!
Kweku: Hahahaha! [wipes tears from eyes] Another reason legislators might not act is because in California, the law requires a two-thirds majority vote in the legislature if you want to increase taxes. But all you need is a simple majority to get a tax increase through with a proposition! So a couple of the propositions are tax increases.
Ezekiel: It seems weird and bad to constrain the legislature like that.
Kweku: Actually, it used to be much worse. Time was, you needed a two-thirds majority just to pass a budget, until in 2010, they —
Ezekiel: Don't tell me. They passed a proposition, didn't they?
Kweku: Yep. Proposition 25.
Kweku: But you're right, some of this stuff should be taken care of by the legislature. Like Proposition 60, which requires condom use in porn flicks.
Ezekiel: Wait. THAT should be Proposition 69.
Kweku: Well, it shouldn't be a proposition at all. There's literally no reason that we need a popular vote on this. The legislature is perfectly capable of taking care of safety codes! But yeah, if it's going to be a proposition, it should definitely be Proposition 69.
Ezekiel: OK, I agree with you there. I mean, it sounds like it's virtually impossible for the average voter to be fully informed about all of these propositions and all the pros, cons, and unforeseen consequences. You'd almost have to at least partially rely on other organizations to tell you what to vote. Which seems ... kind of undemocratic, ironically.
Kweku: Yes. There's too much for most people to keep track of. That's why we have representative democracy in the first place — we delegate that authority to people who we've picked to represent our values and views.
Ezekiel: I'm just spitballing here, but maybe the even larger "why" — call it the "cosmic why" — behind why our ballots are so thick is that we've lost some trust in representative democracy. I mean, I think politicians have had a reputation for being dishonest crooks for a long time, so that's not new. But they were always our dishonest crooks. Lately it feels like even that qualifier doesn't hold anymore.
Kweku: That could be true, but whose fault is that? Is it the fault of the politicians for being untrustworthy, or is it the fault of voters for being too cynical? Or is it just the fact that so much more of the inner workings of politics is visible now, and we don't like what we see?
Ezekiel: It's probably some mix of all of the above. But still, we've got to let the legislators handle some of this stuff. That's what we're paying them for, after all.
Kweku: Maybe we need a proposition to make it harder to make new propositions.
Ezekiel: The real Proposition 69.