Propositioning California

Stroll into the Golden State Museum in downtown Sacramento, pay a small fee and head up the sweeping stairway to the upstairs showroom. Behold an engaging array of multimedia exhibits, interactive demonstrations and joystick information-delivery devices that help you explore the past, present and future of California.

Next, walk out into the courtyard near the Secretary of State’s office (coincidentally ground zero for the recall’s statewide vote-counting operation) and behold the towering, six-story-tall Constitution Wall with its giant word etchings emerging from the concrete—Rights, Assemble, Speak … Redress.

We write this editorial before the polls close on Tuesday, before the results of the most significant attempt at “redress” in California history are known. But whatever the outcome of the recall, one thing remains certain. The election raised high expectations for change among the state’s voters, and those expectations will be nearly impossible to fulfill.

That’s because California—with its giant population of nearly 40 million people—has become almost ungovernable these last decades. An article in The New Yorker last month theorized what many of us have known for a long time: the reason has largely to do with the allure of “do-it-yourself democracy” and the state’s steady stream of voter initiatives.

Ever since the property-tax-cutting Proposition 13 passed 25 years ago, California ballots have regularly featured a laundry list of such voter initiatives, most of which wound up in court (like Proposition 187, which went after services for illegal immigrants), promised what they couldn’t deliver (like Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Proposition 49 promoting after-school programs, which remains unfunded and, therefore, worthless) or actually exaggerated the very problems they intended to solve (like Proposition 13, which ultimately penalized property-tax-paying homeowners by wreaking havoc on state and county budgets, thereby undermining the California economy).

This week, we were faced with the ultimate voter initiative—the recall election of Governor Gray Davis. The fact that it was paid for by a partisan politico with big bucks (Republican Congressman Darrell Issa) should come as no surprise to anyone because almost all voter initiatives got their start that way. Ultimately, the recall sought to do what most other initiatives have—to deliver a quick fix to a problem by making complex things appear simple. We fear the same will be true when it comes to the recall.

Gazing up at those charged words on the museum’s Constitution Wall during this election week, one can’t help but worry for the future of the Golden State and feel dismay about the possibility that “do-it-yourself democracy” might have something even worse in store for us.