Why I vote “no” on (almost) all California ballot propositions, even if I agree with them

TL;DR

  • Ballot propositions are a weapon of absolute last resort with significant negative externalities
  • The only ballot measures that deserve consideration are those that are 1) critically important (the “compelling interest” standard), 2) well-drafted and clear, not overly specific, and reasonably future-proof, and 3) structurally impossible to pass as a regular law
  • In practice, this usually includes 1) good governance measures that incumbents don’t like (e.g. redistricting) and 2) civil rights measures that special interests or religious conservatives don’t like (e.g. drug reform, prison reform, gay marriage)
  • Most ballot measures fail one or more of these tests. When in (any) doubt, vote no

Ballot measures are a weapon of last resort

So which ballot measures are worth the cost?

  1. The compelling interest test — is this of such dire importance that the nuclear option is called for?
  2. The 38-year test — is it well drafted, clear and concise, not overly specific, and reasonably future-proof?
  3. The last resort test — is there a really good reason why it can’t become law the normal way?
  1. Good governance measures that incumbents don’t like (e.g. redistricting)
  2. Civil rights measures that special interests or religious conservatives don’t like (e.g. drug reform, prison reform, gay marriage)
  3. Revenue measures — e.g. tax increases, new fees, or state bonds — that because of Prop 13 cannot be passed any other way

Okay, got it. So what about 2016?

Yes

  • Prop 62 — abolishes the death penalty in California
  • Prop 67 — I hate this measure. It’s a referendum, not a ballot proposition. So a “yes” vote upholds an already-passed law banning plastic bags in grocery stores, while a “no” vote rejects and repeals it. In other words, a “yes” vote means no change, whereas a “no” vote overturns an existing law. This is crazy and wrong. However, it’s on the ballot. I considered abstaining out of principle, but ultimately I agree with the ban (on marine life, not climate change, grounds—as far as I can tell, the math on carbon emissions is unsettled between plastic and reusable bags). I have decided to vote yet

No, because “compelling interest”

  • Prop 52 — an arcane rule around the allocation of hospital fees. Seems reasonable but it’s impossible to understand and therefore inappropriate for a ballot measure
  • Prop 56 — a tax of $2.00 per pack on cigarettes. Sounds good in theory, but I struggle with the regressive natures of tobacco taxes (mostly poor people smoke in California)
  • Prop 60 — requires the use of condoms for porn actors. Fails on compelling interest, but also appears to be an egregiously poorly written law
  • Prop 65 — allocates plastic bag revenue to a specific environmental fund

No, because “38 years”

  • Prop 51 — a $9 billion schools bond. Allocates the funds too specifically, puts the state further in debt to address a problem caused by Prop 13. FWIW Gov. Jerry Brown opposes
  • Prop 53 — requires voter approval for new public infrastructure bonds >$2B. In general, requiring more voter approval for anything is bad. This simply makes it harder for the legislature to do things. Gridlock seems to be the goal
  • Prop 55 — a tax increase on the wealthy to fund schools, for 12 years. Sounds good in theory, but not via ballot prop. And schools only lack money because of Prop 13.
  • Prop 59 — calls for the legislature to “use its authority” to “propose” a constitutional amendment overturning Citizen’s United. I’m all for that outcome, but this prop doesn’t actually do anything. Political grandstanding at its worst
  • Prop 61 — prohibits the state from paying more than the VA for drugs. Sounds good, but there are countless ways it could go awry — what if a drug company doesn’t agree to the price? Does the state not buy that drug? What if a drug company creates California-specific versions?
  • Prop 64 — legalizes marijuana in California. I strongly support legalization and planned to vote “yes” but this is a 60-page measure that establishes a byzantine, far-reaching regulatory regime that strikes me as deeply inappropriate for ballot proposition. Marijuana is already effectively decriminalized in California, and this proposition does nothing to address the injustice of people already in prison for marijuana-related offenses. I wish we could legalize marijuana the right way, but this isn’t it. I’m voting no
  • Prop 66 — affirms the death penalty (I just disagree with this)

Close calls

  • Prop 54 — requires all bills to be posted online for 72 hours before the legislature votes. It’s designed to increase transparency and discourage closed-door deals, which sounds good. But there seem to be a lot of possible holes — for instance, it seems that if comma gets changed, the clock restarts. So I’m following my rule: when in doubt, vote no
  • Prop 57 — makes it easier for certain non-violent offenders to get parole. I believe we incarcerate far too many people in this county, and I strongly support prison and sentencing reform. However, this measure feels complicated and overly specific, and it doesn’t actually define “non-violent”. Too many questions, so I’m voting no
  • Prop 58 — this one is tough. It repeals 1998 Prop 227, which was an egregious measure restricting the use of non-English languages in public schools. However, it doesn’t just repeal that law, it introduces lots of new and different requirements. I’m inclined to vote no
  • Prop 63 — a broad gun control measure that regulates ammunition, imposes harsher penalties for gun theft, and a few other things. I think it’s pretty innovative. I’m inclined to vote yes but I haven’t decided. [Update: I voted no on 63 because I felt it was too complex, much of it is already law, and requiring a permit for *any* ammunition purchase feels like overkill to me. FWIW, my wife voted yes]

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Michael Levinson

Michael Levinson

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