Wednesday, July 29, 2009
California Election Reforms: Almost Enough
California's election laws are being challenged at the polls in November 2010 with one major initiative having qualified for petition signatures and another measure being reworded and re-submitted to the Attorney General after the first draft was grossly misconstrued by the Attorney General Jerry Brown's office. The two measures would follow voters recent passing of a measure that will change how boundaries are drawn for State Assembly and Senate Districts, essentially an attempt to eliminate or minimize gerrymandering of districts by the political parties.
California has many problems that are the result of the political structure and laws governing elections and offices. Paramount among them is the gerrymandered districts following the 2000 census which resulted in the vast majority of districts in California being "safe" for one party or the other--most generally safe for any Democrat running for office--as the districts are drawn with significant majorities of one party or the other. The result is no competition at the polls, no compelling reason for any candidate to listen to or acknowledge any moderate ideas or citizens. All a candidate must do is prevail in the party primary and they will be elected to office. To win the primary the candidate needs more money than their opponent, to get that money they must pander to the "base" which tends to be entrenched on the either the left wing of the Democratic Party or the right wing of the Republican Party.
While the initiative to take the drawing of political districts away from the Legislature and putting the process into the hands of an "independent panel" appointed by both parties, it is just a start to the reform needed to cure California of the structural problems in its election and governance processes. So are "Vote Safe Now" and "Citizen Legislature Act" both are worthy initiatives but do not complete the necessary reform to overhaul our state government to bring sensibility, accountability and good governance to Sacramento.
"Vote Safe Now" is an initiative proposal from State Senator George Runner that is very simple in its proposals. The main aspect of the initiative is the requirement that all voters must show identification to cast their ballots. You show your identification to purchase a pack of underwear with a credit card at Sears, but you can exercise the most important right you have just by signing a name with no verification the signature is your own. We must show our identification to board an airplane but not to decide the President of the United States. If you purchase tickets to a Dodger game and go to Will Call to pick them up you must show your identification but to vote on whether same sex couples can marry you just walk into a polling place give a name and a signature and receive a ballot. Voter fraud is so easy to accomplish in California. Every campaign has available lists of registered voters and whether they have voted in the past several elections. Seeing a voting pattern of someone who does not vote it is quite simple for the campaign to send fake voters to the polls posing as the actual voters, no ID required, get the ballot and cast the votes. Easier than buying underwear.
Runner's initiative has two other provisions as well, one protects the ballots of California citizens serving in the military and the other requires absentee ballots be verified by election officials matching signatures and identification. With almost 50% of California ballots now being absentee the opportunity for fraud increases dramatically. Runner's initiative is meant to protect the votes of California citizens by eliminating illegal ballots that would cancel out those cast legally. The initiative was submitted to Attorney General Jerry Brown for title and summary for the ballot, the Brown's summary was blatant in its negative language to attract "no" votes so Runner pulled the initiative and will resubmit at a later date to qualify for the November 2010 ballot. He is also taking the Attorney General to court over the title and summary language issued.
"Citizen Legislature Act" is in the process of collecting signatures to make the November 2010 ballot and is being put forth by Citizens for California Reform, a group organized and run by Gabriella Holt. The initiative is quite simple, it will reduce the amount of time the Legislature meets and create a part-time governing body. Holt's premise is that with less time to meet the Legislature has less time to create and pass so many bills, over 2,000 per year at this point, that cater to special interests and intrude more and more into our lives. As was recently seen during the budget crisis in Sacramento, while the State was operating on IOUs members of the Assembly and Senate were writing and putting up for votes bills that had nothing to do with the budget. Instead of working to solve the fiscal crisis they had created they were spending time and resources on bills that were so insignificant to the situation as to be laughable.
A very big benefit to the CLA would be the cutting back on the staffing and benefits for the members of the Legislature, saving the tax payers millions and millions of dollars. With less time to meet the meetings must be more efficient to accomplish the major requirements of the state. On the Citizens for California Reform website has a great chart comparing California's full time legislature with the legislatures of the other forty-nine states, a very interesting chart I recommend everyone read. Also on the website is the petition for the Act which can be downloaded for signatures.
The Vote Safe Now and Citizens Legislature Act are measures worthy of the ballot, and in my opinion worthy of being enacted, combined with the redistricting power being taken away from the Legislature to reduce the prospects of gerrymandered "safe" districts the measures take big strides in voters regaining control of their government. However the three initiatives do not go far enough, we need one more initiative on the ballot: eliminate term-limits for the Assembly and the Senate.
The explosion in spending by our state government can be tied in a time-line to the introduction of term limits for our Legislators. With only two or three terms in office our politicians must be on the prowl for their next elected office, a new set of voters and a new campaign needing cash. Even though they are in safe districts a new primary for a new office means they no longer have "incumbent" under their name making the primary the difficult election. To win the primary they need to have support from their party base and its donors. To get this support they need to curry favor while in their current position. All the term limit laws have done is recycle our elected officials between Assembly and Senate and moved them further away from the average voter.
Term limits were enacted in large part to eliminate the power that had been accrued and wielded by then Speaker Willie Brown. Brown ran Sacramento his way and had so much power there was no way an election would oust him from office. Brown also controlled a Legislature that for the most part had balanced budgets, surplus budgets and was able to have some sort of vision for the future. But at least he was up for election every couple of years and there was the opportunity to mount campaigns against him. Slim yes, but a chance nonetheless. Further, the members of the Assembly, and the Senate, were also able to focus on their jobs, be somewhat responsible to the voters in their districts and temper the wild swing to the left our state has taken since the first class of term limit officials were elected.
If we are to have a part-time legislature then we need to eliminate the term limits as well. We must have elected officials who are vested in the future of the state and its citizens and not using the office to pad their campaign coffers for the next open seat primary they will be entering. Yes incumbents are elected disproportionally, but maybe many of them deserve to be re-elected. Not all of the politicians in Sacramento are thieves, carpetbaggers or egomaniacs. Many are honest Californians who try to help our citizens and state, but their ability to do so is limited by the term limits.
To entice the removal of term limits, should there be such an initiative I suggest including that no one may run for office with their elected title or the word "incumbent". While knowledgeable voters, and aren't those the ones we really want voting, would know who the incumbent is, other voters would be more apt to look at the person and their ideas.
Require voter identification at the polls, reduce our Legislature to part-time and eliminate term limits. Those are three ideas that would improve our state governance. Two are on their way to the ballot, one is an idea that has not yet generated any support--I hope it does.