The California Ballot: Five Rules That Make Voting Easier

(A polling station in the United Kingdom for the Brexit vote. These rules don’t just apply to California elections, although I’ll be using California’s 2016 ballot initiatives as examples. They matter anywhere “direct democracy” is in effect.)

1. Vote NO on regressive taxes.

A regressive tax is any tax that charges all citizens the same amount of money. The most familiar example is sales tax. The problem with such taxes is very simple: they are disproportionately hard on the poorest members of society, who pay a much greater percentage of their income covering these costs.

Yes, such taxes produce revenue, and there are always good causes that need more money. But this is not the way to pay for them. They should be part of the state budget, paid for with graduated income taxes. Sometimes it is easier to pass a tax on the poor than it is to raise income taxes. That doesn’t make it right.

Very often, regressive taxes are designed to change consumer behavior. Tax plastic bags, and people will start bringing reusable bags to the grocery store. Tax cigarettes, and kids won’t be able to afford them…unless they’re privileged, and can pay, or already addicted and unable to quit. 

Such “nudges” are poor substitutes for broader changes to state law. Why not just ban plastic bags? Why not increase penalties for selling cigarettes to minors, and restrict cigarette sales to “state stores”? 

2. Let legislators do their jobs. Don’t tie their hands.

For example, don’t require that new taxes, new bonds, or new infrastructure projects receive a “super-majority” of aye votes in the State Legislature. Don’t force the Legislature to ask for voter approval after it passes a bill. Such measures impede the functioning of our representative democracy. They increase the (undemocratic) political power of wealthy special interests by making it cheaper and easier for them to block legislation they don’t like. 

The best way to fix a bad law, or a bad budget, is to pass a new and better one.

3. Don’t vote for redundant or unpredictable measures just because they seem well-intentioned. 

The cigarette tax is one example. It’s already illegal for kids to smoke cigarettes; if the law isn’t being enforced, then fix the law. Another example is condoms in porn. The porn industry is already highly regulated. Yes, it seems weird to vote against condoms, but that isn’t reason enough to pass something into law, hoping for zero unintended consequences.

Regulating state purchasing deals for prescription drugs is another good example. The proposition is supposed to lower drug costs. But it doesn’t do this by fixing prices, changing patent law, or increasing corporate transparency. Instead, it gambles the whole state’s access to affordable drugs on the prices drug companies charge veterans. There are plenty of ways this can go wrong for Californians, which is only to be expected, since it doesn’t get anywhere close to the root of the problem.

4. Always vote to give schools, transportation systems, and other vital public institutions more money. 

This money comes in the form of bonds, which are then gradually repaid. The only exceptions, naturally, are measures that funnel state money into the hands of private corporations.

5. Favor flexibility but not “local control.”

Many of the worst ballot measures are inflexible and irrevocable, such as the “Three Strikes” sentencing laws that clogged California’s prisons. Greater flexibility in awarding parole is a good thing; by the same logic, rushing capital punishment cases is not. Making gun theft a felony will not reduce gun violence, but it will send more people to jail for longer periods of time. 

This goes along with Rule #3: just because you really, really don’t like something — mass shootings, for example — doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to vote for mandatory minimums, unnecessary regulation, or laws that cannot be enforced. 

There’s a big difference between flexible law enforcement, or flexible budgeting, and “local control.” Flexibility lets lawmakers, judges, school administrators, and other competent officials do their jobs intelligently. Local control — of property taxes, for example — just transfers jurisdiction from the state to its counties. This solves nothing. Two things, neither of them good, motivate people to put county before state: money they don’t want to share, or provincial attitudes they don’t want to debate.

That’s it! See you at the polls!