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By Diana Diamond

Ballot propositions have problems

Uploaded: Oct 20, 2020

I voted yesterday. And after I gave my ballot to my mailman (he assured me the ballots were flowing smoothly through the post office), I thought about my votes and what I was being asked to decide on the ballot. I reflected on those 12 state and three local ballot measures, and the problems I had deciding which side I should vote for.

On Sunday I talked to one of my sons. "I voted!" he said. "Great," I responded. " How did you vote on Prop 15?"

"Which one was that?" he asked.

And therein lies one of several problems I have with state propositions.

Peppered on so many streets in town, I see signs, "Vote yes on 18." "Vote no on 23." "Vote no on 22, or 25, or 15." But I can't always remember what measures these numbers represent, so the lawn signs have no meaning until I've read all the literature and examined my ballot material. The same is true with TV vote ads. "No on 21 -- A flawed initiative that will make housing worse," or "No on Prop 25 -- unfair, unsafe costly." What are these measures about? Which one is Prop 25, I ask myself.

And in Sunday" Mercury News, I found an full-page ad urging voters "Yes on 16." The ONLY description was: "Prop 16 is about being on the right side of history. It reveals the playing field for women and people of color." That comment was followed by more than half a page listing who is for Prop 16, and in red at the bottom, "Who's against Prop 26? ("The California Republican Party") -- and that was it. (Republican ads do the same thing to Democrats.)

Okay that's one problem I have about the propositions. The next is the way we don't realize how much money a measure is really going to cost state residents. Example: "$50 million for school bonds" doesn't mention the additional $50M+ interest that voters will have to pay.

Prop 14 is about stem cell bonds -- $5.58 billion -- a lot of money. Except with interest, it will really cost $7.78 billion. Yes, we are talking about billions of dollars in one little proposition. We shouldn't be casual about an expenditure like that.

The next problem: Some of these measures don't belong on a ballot for voters to decide -- they are too complex, oftentimes require knowledge most voters don't have, and are too convoluted to decide. Case in point: Prop 23 on dialysis clinics. I know little about dialysis nor whether clinics need to have a physician on hand, or why, and if they don't what that would mean. Nor should I be expected to know. Ditto for Prop 14 on stem cell research. It's a wonderful idea, we need even more, but we gave companies $3 billion several years ago, and the results have been good, but not great. A lot of private medical companies are delving into stem research -- do they need this money? Or would the state set up its own research companies? Would the state's efforts unknowingly duplicate some of this research? What is the best way to use this money? I won't get my questions answered by the election but these are some of the problems I had in deciding whether I should agree to $5+ billion more in funds -- especially when we have huge problems with the coronavirus and don't yet know how to get rid of it or if we can find a vaccine that works.

One other proposition problem is most of us do not think too much about the amount of money these bond and other spending measures will cost us. We see words like "environmental" and "safety"" and "clean air," and glide through the exact cost to taxpayers -- i.e., was that $2 million or $2 billion. They see these words without caring what the measure is all about. Instead, their "I'm for the environment" attitude overtakes analysis of the measure.

Years ago, when I first encountered California's propositions, both referenda and initiatives, I thought it was a great way for people to have a ballot voice in determining the future of our state. And usually getting an initiative (a measure initiated by the people) requires a certain and significant number of signatures. Some groups managed to get their measures on the ballot. But now lobbyists and unions and political action groups hire signature gatherers, and more measures succeed in getting on.

I now am at the point of wanting Californians to do something to improve this process. Maybe create a bipartisan powerful commission of wise people to decide apolitically what measures should go on the ballot -- which should be decided by the legislature, or professional groups, and which by people. Some of these measures have become too complex man of us to understand.

When I told my son what Prop 15 was, he said, "Oh yes, I voted "yes on it because of..." And he gave a good answer. But when I responded, "this ballot is really about xyz not abc," he said, "Mom, you and I must be talking about different measures." We weren't. I had read different material than he had. And he said, "I didn't realize this measure would do that."

So let's just revamp the whole proposition process!