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Too Much Democracy?

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Steven DeCinzo

In their wildest dreams our forefathers never imagined this

By Will Harper

AS VOTERS APPROACH the half-hour mark in the curtained booth on June 2, punching yet another hole on the state's longest and most confusing ballot ever, they should try to remember that the road to voter hell was paved with good intentions.

California's progressive reforms of the early 20th Century all started out as pure a democractic notion as any Greek philosopher ever dreamed up.

Take the idea of initiatives, for instance. Gov. Hiram Johnson pushed it at a time when railroads owned state lawmakers. With a referendum, the thinking went, regular Joes would, in theory, triumph over special interests. Now, however, monied interests are the ones who dominate the initiative process, getting an assist from the electorate when they can't convince the Legislature to support their special interest agenda on items such as contract bidding and slot machines.

And while the concept of governmental accountability is idealistic, how many of us are competent to make choices for obscure bureaucratic offices like state controller, treasurer or members of the Board of Equalization?

This year Californians confront the latest well-intentioned reform measure: the open primary, approved by voters two years ago. Its underlying logic: Encourage better voter turnout by letting independents vote for Democrats or Republicans (or anybody on the ballot) and, in general, giving people more choices.

There are more than 100 candidates listed on the ballot for state and federal offices; eight state propositions require 76 pages to explain them. Locally there are 20 candidates for county offices and special districts, a proposed amendment to the county charter, four mayoral candidates in San Jose, and up to five City Council candidates in some districts.

The choices can tax the brain oil and mental bandwidth of even the chair of university political science department, as Terry Christensen happens to be. "This is on a scale beyond what most of us comprehend," the San Jose State University prof acknowledged. "I'm a Ph.D., and I don't read through half of the ballot. I make guesses like everybody else."

With three weeks to go until the primary, pollsters marveled at the high rate of undecided voters--about one in four of those who regularly turn out at the polls--in the election's prime-time feature, the gubernatorial race.

With fewer Americans reading newspapers, voters are relying on television for their civic information. Unfortunately, TV news is largely ignoring statewide politics. Perhaps that's because, as Democratic political operative William Bradley conspiratorily suggests, "the state's TV industry ... is far more interested in profiting from manipulative [political] advertising and promoting the pooled ignorance of its newscasts than in helping Californians make informed decisions."

And if voters don't know what the hay is going on in the high-profile race for governor, how are they supposed to make informed choices about untelevised local contests for judge and water board? Historical precedence tells us ballot-punchers often don't bother to make a choice at all in minor-league races. According to Christensen, those who do show up at the polls regularly will just cast a vote for the marquee statewide offices or initiatives, while simply ignoring peewee offices like city councilmember or assessor.

To further demonstrate the pathetic state of the modern electoral process, candidates' placement on the ballot is now randomly selected instead of done alphabetically. The reason? Because some brilliant voters are apt to select the candidate at the top of the ballot. Christensen estimates that having the top ballot placement can mean an extra 2 or 3 percentage points for a candidate.

The late New York Times columnist Walter Lippmann, a champion of representative democracy wherein professionals and experts make the complex choices, criticized the limitations of direct democracy like this: "The capacity of the general public--on which we're dependent for votes--to take on many problems is very limited. ... [W]hat public opinion can do in the end is to say yes or no. It can't do anything more complicated than that."

But these days, voters often don't even say yes or no, just "Huh?"

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From the May 28-June 3, 1998 issue of Metro.

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