It's Rational To Be Ignorant About Plethora of California Initiatives

Flooding the zone.


You've got to wonder whether voters, many of whom don't know the names of their own legislators, should determine whether revenue bonds for major infrastructure projects should be subject to a statewide vote (Proposition 53). Or whether certain state agencies should have the price of prescription drugs they buy tied to the lowest prices paid by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (Proposition 61).

With many initiatives, one has to read the text multiple times to get their gist. Many are downright confusing. For instance, Proposition 67 asks voters to decide whether to ban stores from handing out "single-use" plastic bags to take home groceries. It's a referendum rather than an initiative, which means the public is voting whether to uphold or overturn an already approved statute. A "yes" keeps the law and a "no" overturns it. (By the way, people do use these "single-use" bags multiple times—often to pick up doggie poo or line trash cans.)

To make matters less clear, there's a related—and wonderfully mischievous—measure called Proposition 65. The plastic-bag industry was annoyed that the grocery industry ultimately backed the bag ban. Under the final compromise, stores may not give away those light plastic bags, but they must charge for other types of bags. They keep the money. This initiative would redirect the estimated $300 million in proceeds from the stores to a state environmental fund—but only if voters approve Proposition 67.

My critique of voters isn't meant to be rude. There's a term in economics called "rational ignorance." When it comes to, say, purchasing a new car, Americans are a diligent bunch. It's rational to spend lots of time doing research to avoid making a costly mistake. But it's not rational to spend hours learning about candidates or initiatives, because the chance our vote will affect the outcome is nil.

Voters can be rational in this way: The more initiatives on the ballot, the likelier they vote "no" on all of them. That might be good news this year, given that many are bad ideas. For instance, Proposition 51 would spend billions of dollars on school bonds without reforming the current system. Proposition 55 would extend some "temporary" tax hikes that voters approved in Proposition 30.

Proposition 56 is a tax increase dressed up as a humane social policy. Supporters claim higher tobacco taxes reduce smoking rates. Fair enough, by why does Prop. 56 also include a massive tax hike on e-cigarettes when prominent studies show that vaping is 95 percent safer than cigarettes, and smokers use them as a cessation device? And why does only a small portion of the funds go to tobacco-cessation programs?

Some of the others are pretty clear, concept-wise. But the devil is always in the details.

Proposition 62 would repeal the death penalty and replace it with life in prison without parole. No one has been put to death in California for a decade, and backers argue it would save money and provide better closure for victims' families to end the facade. Death-penalty supporters offer Proposition 66, which attempts to fast-track executions by imposing appeal deadlines, although some of the specific reforms of the appeals process are matters of controversy.

Proposition 64 would legalize recreational uses of marijuana and could wipe clean the arrest records of people convicted of marijuana-related offenses. Both ideas are a welcome change from a costly and unjust drug war. But some supporters of legal marijuana fear the new legalization regime could be more restrictive than the current situation, which allows for medical marijuana. Only the rare voter will understand the nuances.

Proposition 58 would let local school districts reinstate bilingual education programs. Backers say the measure would promote the use of multiple languages. But "bilingual education" was the practice of teaching kids almost entirely in their native language, thus often slowing their entry into the mainstream.

Some initiatives are straightforward. Proposition 60 requires porn actors to use condoms (although opponents fear the expansion of lawsuits). Proposition 57 would expand parole for nonviolent offenders. Others seem pointless. There's an advisory vote on a U.S. Supreme Court decision (Proposition 59) and a redundant gun-control package that's basically an election platform for an ambitious lieutenant governor (Proposition 63).

Proposition 54 sounds like a yawner (it requires the final version of any bill to be in print for 72 hours before legislators vote on it), but is arguably the most significant measure on the ballot. It could put the kibosh on those last-minute gut-and-amend measures that are snuck through the Legislature at session's end. This measure should never have needed an initiative, but the Legislature has refused to act on it myriad times.

In an ideal world, few of these measures would be placed before voters. Suffice it to say that Sacramento is not an ideal world, so voters will just have to muddle through. At least there's plenty of voter information for those irrational enough to read it.