California Primary 2006: The Death Rattle of So-Called “Reform”

Wasn’t that just a wonderful primary election?
We had the a record low voter turnout statewide, and we had a record number of mail ballots that were held until the last minute, simply because people either didn’t know who to vote for, or who to vote against. We had some of the nastiest campaigns, funded by all sorts of well funded interests, and Democrats in particular are left with a slate of candidates most people still don’t know a lot about, at a time when we’re facing Real Problems.
Whose fault is it? Oh, it depends on who you ask. It’s the Democrats’ fault. It’s the Republicans’ fault. It’s the consultants’ fault. It’s the special interest groups’ fault. It’s the fault of people who wear those rectangle glasses. It’s the fault of someone’s husband. It’s the “progressives'” fault. It’s the “conservatives'” fault. It’s the know-it-all bloggers’ fault. It’s the fault of Someone Else.
Oh, and don’t forget it’s Money’s Fault. Bet you didn’t know inanimate representations of currency could be at fault. But to some it is.
“So,” you ask, “whose fault is it really?” you ask. Good question – thanks for asking!
It would be easy for me to take the Official Snarky Knowitall Position that it’s everyone I just mentioned’s fault but that would be a bit too easy, and a bit overdone. Instead I’m going to suggest another idea: that we in California had a Perfect Storm of Unintended Consequences, from all the so-called “reforms” that self-styled “reformers” have pushed on us for the last several decades.

Take term limits. People promised us a World of Joyous Rapture, because we’d finally get rid of all those nasty career politicians. In their stead, noble minded folks from the private sector would forsake their jobs, serve for a few years, then go back to private life.
It does not take a genius to figure out that isn’t the case. Sure, we got rid of nasty liberals the GOP didn’t like, such as John Burton and John Vasconcellos, and nasty conservatives the Demos didn’t like, such as those guys in the OC. But we also got rid of any stability we had with people who knew what they were doing (oh and there’s that whole denying voters a right to vote for whom they want but who cares).
Most importantly, we got rid of the old incumbents and replaced them with people always with one eye on the next prize, not on the job at hand. Lobbyists and the Executive Branch don’t mind it so much, but try holding someone like Sheila Kuehl accountable for her vote in the Assembly to hand over energy policy to Enron – you can’t because she’s long gone! Lucky her.
That’s one part of the storm. The other has been the totally inconsistent regulation of campaign contributions since 1974. We have developed a patchwork of regulations, all with different ideological and political origins, none of which have changed significantly who gets elected to office.
We didn’t like Large Checks to candidates, so we put limits on those checks. Problem was, we didn’t figure out a way to contain costs. Like postage. And in a spectacular Jedi Move of Brilliance, we changed the limits for each office, even though everyone is running in the same stupid state with the same costs.
Ok, fine. Bad big checks not going to big bad politicians. But guess what? Accountability was thrown out the window too. Sure, large checks from Allegedly Bad People and Interests were cut off. But instead of disappearing, as the People Who Know Best said they would, they simply found a new home in so-called “independent expenditures.”
More to the point, anyone running for the Legislature found themselves in an odd position: They could not ask for an “IE” done on their behalf, nor could they control what was said. But most candidates started to figure out that if they didn’t have said efforts on their behalf paid for by (insert some group you don’t like here), they weren’t as likely to get elected in a primary election against other no-names (remember, term limits, people!)
More to the point – these “IEs” can do whatever they please, and a candidate running for office can do The Crane of Gawrsh! Ain’t nuthin’ I can do about that!” – all the while benefitting from said IE and owing the funders of said IE big time.
Best of all, there is no way anyone is held accountable. If Citizens for Puppies And Rainbows puts out a flyer ripping on a candidate for being Catholic, no one can stop them – they’ll just file under a new name next time, and no one’s the wiser – except for those who got the benefits.
And since special interests collide and collaborate at random moments based on pending legislation that affect their profits, you can bet so long as people can come up with names like “Leaders for Effective Government” or “Californians for a Better Way,” or whatever, ain’t nothing’s gonna change.
(True, there is a way under the current system we could cut this off, but it ain’t gonna happen. La Prensa aren’t asking questions, and Los Politicos aren’t gonna rock the boat.)
Best of all, no one has ever found an honest and effective way of addressing the fact that many districts are so horrifically gerrymandered, there’s no hope of a real campaign, people be damned. Yes, I know Herr Doofinator had some plan on the ballot last year, but as in all Road to Hell Legislation, it had all sorts of nonsense designed to help His Guys and screw over The Other Guys. But the fact no self-styled reformer has found a real answer to this shows that some of the root causes of the problems we have in building fair elections aren’t being dealt with.
The fun won’t stop now. We have all sorts of promises by more well-intentioned people who want to pass more laws, contradicting existing laws, with more unintended consequences as well. More ways to try and game the system into getting results one wants, and more threads to unravel. Is it any wonder our system is in knots and mayhem as is?
The only way we’ll be able to ensure an honest, fair, and equitable election system is one where we don’t presume results “if only” but instead ask for total accountability from those who would ask for our votes to spend our money, and make decisions for us. A system where we have total and immediate transparency of both decision-making, and decision-influencing are easily accessible and understandable to the citizen, the press, and anyone else who cares to answer.
Most of all, we need to stop assuming we “know” what people want and let them make up their mind themselves. Oddly enough, if people running for office would take a moment to listen to what people actually think, instead of telling them empty bullshit about “fighting for working families” or “fighting to cut taxes” when in fact, people know no one’s done a frakkin’ thing about it, who knows? The “good” people might win, sans gimmicky “reforms.”
Here’s a witty rejoinder to put on the ballot: let’s mandate the good people from all sides come together to put a really great system of elections and politics together to preserve the Republic, save Democracy, and stop the games that so-called “reformers” try to use to game the system for Their Guys.
Don’t expect a paid signature gatherer to ask you to sign that petition anytime soon.

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