Blame the Ballot Box

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Californians know disasters and have lived through several natural ones. Earthquakes, fires, floods, you name it.

It's rare that the state suffers two disasters in a week's time, but that's exactly what happened last week on successive Tuesdays. One was a fiscal disaster, the other a moral one.

On May 19 the voters-at least the quarter of them who bothered to show up-decided to stick a finger in the eye of the legislators and send five ballot measures down in flames. The compromises between legislators that were supposed to dig us out of a budget hole were scoffed at by the electorate, which seemed blissfully ignorant of the consequences. As if that weren't enough of a blow, six out of seven California Supreme Court justices decided Tuesday that Prop. 8, the initiative that banned gay marriage, should stand. Forget about that decision last year in which Chief Justice Ronald George wrote that "the California Constitution properly must be interpreted to guarantee this basic civil right to all Californians, whether gay or heterosexual, and to same-sex couples as well as to opposite-sex couples."

Incredibly, these same justices decided that the sanctity of the people's voice overrides their best judicial interpretation. Compounding the injustice, the decision leaves intact the 18,000 marriages that occurred last year before Prop. 8 passed. That means that you're only entitled to marriage rights as a gay person if you happened to be of marrying age in 2008.

So we have two disasters and nobody specific to blame, unless you want to put it all on the Governator's shoulders (which have been sagging quite a bit lately, with all the weight).

Here's a tip ... when you can't find anyone to blame, the blame usually lies with you. If you're frustrated with how screwed up the state is, then you can blame the initiative system itself and the voters who participate in it. If these two disasters do not convince voters that the initiative system needs serious reform, I don't know what will.

The injustice is in the numbers. Prop. 1A failed because 10.9 percent of the adult population cast a "No" vote on it, and there was a similar outcome for the other four failed propositions. Prop. 8 passed because 26.6 percent of the adult population decided that gays should not marry last November. How, in any way, can those kind of numbers be called the "will of the people?"

It's more like the will of the educated, the will of the wealthy and the will of the whites, because those are the groups that vote in higher numbers than everyone else. This is not the fault of educated, wealthy whites, it's just a fact. Somebody's civil rights should not be judged by a self-selected quarter of the population.

But this reality of voter turnout, combined with an inflexible system in which initiatives cannot be overturned except by another initiative or a reluctant state Supreme Court, have left us with a state in ruins. I know-you don't see fire falling from the sky yet, and you can still get a cheap cup of frozen yogurt at Yogurtland, but believe me, the state is in ruins.

The May 19 debacle is a win for budget hawks in the Republican party. They are rubbing their hands with glee at the prospect of a state stuck in a $21 billion deficit hole without the possibility of assessing a new tax. If you want more tax revenues you need two-thirds of the legislature to agree (thanks to another initiative, the infamous Prop. 13), and the Republicans have made it clear that won't happen. So the only other alternative is cuts, the kind of deep cuts that Republicans think will save the state from its fat-and-happy welfare-promoting self. It will do quite the opposite, of course, extending the depression, worsening an already bottom-feeding educational system and hurting those who depend most on social services.

The Prop. 8 disaster can't be blamed on low turnout because the 2008 presidential election attracted people to the polls in droves. The blame for its passage (or kudos, depending on which side you're on) can be passed around to those who put in serious money to the campaign: Mormons, Catholics, or fill-in-the-blank right-leaning organization. But I blame the opposition campaign. It didn't muster the votes it needed in the most conservative parts of the state, and it ran a confusing, ineffective media campaign. It couldn't convince half of the voters that discrimination shouldn't be written into a state constitution, and that's pretty pathetic.

After Tuesday's decision, the gay marriage campaign can go nowhere except back to the same ballot box. Prepare yourselves to vote on repealing Prop. 8 in either the spring or fall of next year. The folks running the repeal campaign seem to think a year of "educating" the red parts of the state will do the trick, but I think they're blinded by their passion for the issue. I can't see 2 percent of voters-potentially 268,000 people-being convinced by next year that their moral value system needs rethinking. There's no doubt that California has lost its status as the most progressive state in the union. When Iowa passes us by, there's something wrong. But forcing another divisive battle at the polls right away might not be the answer.

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Toss the ballot box in the bay at [email protected]



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