Two lesser-known propositions have the potential to arouse far more passion and get voters to the polls

It looks like the right, left and center have gathered enough signatures to place ballot measures before voters on widely publicized issues like teacher tenure, gerrymandering, consumer protection and state spending curtailments. Even so, I expect the real action to come from two sleeper issues that appeal to the people who can swing a California election: the true believers.

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has until June 13 to decide whether to hold a special election. Until then, the governor and Democrats who rule the Legislature will engage in a game of chicken to see who might decide to compromise. That’s what powerful car dealers did recently, when they reluctantly hammered out a deal with Democrats on a three-day-return policy for California car purchases in order to keep a tougher law off the next statewide ballot.

Despite all the attention given to this struggle between the governor, the Democrats and the unions, none of Schwarzenegger’s widely publicized ideas is likely to be the hottest ticket on the next state ballot.

In fact, two lesser-known measures have the potential to arouse far more passion, thus potentially affecting the types of voter blocs that stream into the polls, which in turn could dramatically alter the calculus of the election itself.

One proposed law requires public-employee labor unions to get written permission from their members every year before spending worker dues on political races and ballot measures. The other requires parental notification for any minor age 17 or under who wants to get an abortion in California.

I can see the Election Day crowds now: Lefties and union loyalists show up to derail the union-dues-permission measure, while big business gleefully attempts to ram it through. Right-wingers and bugged parents arrive at the voting booths to seek passage of the abortion-notification measure, but California feminists taunt parents as the sort of people who can’t be trusted with such touchy information.

Let’s hope we don’t see fistfights breaking out at the polls. Then again, this could be fun.

These two hot-button issues could go either way on Election Day. But, in the case of a special election, which is almost always a low-turnout election, the most upset and activist voters will be over-represented. That means they will tend to get what they want.

Stephen Kinney, of Republican polling firm Public Opinion Strategies, notes that conservatives normally have a greater voice in low-turnout elections because, unlike many other voters, they don’t require exciting issues—they always vote. However, he’s seen something completely unexpected lately: passionate first-time voters of every political stripe.

“To see where a low-turnout election is heading, we look very closely at the ‘four of four’—people who voted in four of the last four elections—and the ‘three of four,’” said Kinney. “But I am seeing a lot of passion from the ‘one of fours’—those who voted for the first time in 2004.”

He’s also been noticing an admittedly unscientific indicator that unusual new passions are coursing through the California electorate and not yet fading away: “People aren’t peeling off their Kerry or their Bush [bumper] stickers,” he said. “You’d normally see that by now.”

So, what happens if the abortion measure turns out an unusually high number of voters from the religious right who then peruse the rest of the ballot and influence other outcomes? What happens, conversely, if the union-dues-permission law draws an unusually potent mix of labor lefties, who then sway the rest of the ballot?

I love the uncertainty. Politicians hate it.

The truth is that most Californians long have supported the idea of parental notification of abortion for girls age 17 and under. Even Senator Hillary Clinton recently publicly supported parental notification, if the law exempts teenagers estranged from their families. Senator John Kerry also came out in favor of parental notification.

In an April 2002 Field Poll, California voters were emphatic, giving a lopsided 62-percent-to-29-percent nod to “parental consent,” which is actually a more strict concept than mere “notification.”

Let me risk a prediction about what this all portends.

Come November, if there’s a special election, right-wing groups will drag out absurd, color posters—something along the lines of sweet, pigtailed girls furtively signing up for their secret abortions or, because of a lack of parental guidance, heading to nonexistent abortion butchers. On the other side, expect California’s increasingly annoying feminist groups to trot out a bizarre argument that the law—in place in 31 states, I might add— somehow will permit sick, incestuous fathers to force their daughters to bear their children.

Poor, poor voters.

In 1987, Sacramento lawmakers passed a law to require minors to get permission from parents for an abortion, but the law was challenged and eventually ruled unconstitutional by the California Supreme Court. That decade-long battle was marked by melodramatics by both sides.

Making matters worse, in virtually every gubernatorial campaign I’ve witnessed in California, abortion advocates insist—wrongly—that women might lose their right to choose if the wrong person is elected governor.

The truth is that abortion rights have never, ever, been under serious threat in Sacramento, whether the governor was the conservative Republican Ronald Reagan or the liberal Democrat Jerry Brown—and they never will.

As usual, California voters are much calmer than the loud interest groups on both sides. Voters have a measured view on the issue of choice.

Stretching back to 1989, several Field Polls show that Californians consistently back abortion—but consistently oppose second-trimester abortions and even more strongly oppose third-trimester abortions.

Californians are often thoughtful on such questions. They deserve to have a meaningful debate over parental notification. History suggests they instead will be treated to special-interest absurdism in its purest form.

The second issue—a law that would require public-employee unions to get permission from members before they funnel members’ dues toward political campaigns—also promises to bring out passionate partisans from both sides.

Business groups hope to spin this issue to make it sound like the big unions dominate the money game in California politics while the multinationals and chief executive officers don’t stand a chance at the ballot box. Please.

On the other hand, labor groups will try to make it sound as if they actually care what their members think before they spend millions of dollars in member dues on candidates and measures handpicked by union honchos. Pretty please.

Voters in several states—including Washington, Michigan and Utah—have approved so-called paycheck-protection acts in large part because of this arrogance by union bosses who ignore what a substantial minority of union members believe in.

For example, according to the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, in 1994 union members in the United States split their vote 60-40 in favor of Democratic candidates. No surprise. Yet, 90 percent of union political contributions went to Democratic candidates. Last fall, 40 percent of union members voted for Bush. Yet, very little of their unions’ campaign money went to Bush.

According to the Institute on Money in State Politics, labor unions made up eight of the top 20 contributors to California politicians in 2002 and spent roughly $17 million. However, let’s not forget that among the other top 20 contributors were plenty of rich guys and big businesses who fight unions.

Not surprisingly, when asked, under the requirements of paycheck-protection laws, if their dues can be spent on politics, scads of union members refuse. In 1992, when Washington state passed a paycheck-protection law, the Washington Education Association teachers union suffered a drop in political contributions from $576,000 to $132,000 per year. In Michigan, the United Auto Workers (UAW) political collection plate took a similar hit—not that it slowed down the UAW.

As noted recently by Wall Street Journal political analyst John Fund, former Governor Pete Wilson put a paycheck-protection law on the 1998 primary ballot. But the law lost, with 47 percent of the vote, when several other hot-button issues drew large numbers of Democrats and also because the unions spent a staggering $30 million to defeat it.

Which brings me to a nifty irony: Unions tend to fight “paycheck protection” laws by, well, raising union dues. That’s what the AFL-CIO did to generate millions of political dollars to fight paycheck-protection laws.

That’s exactly the sort of thing that makes politics so much fun.

Lately, the California Teachers Association has floated a plan to raise teacher dues by a hefty sum in order to raise money to fight Arnold on merit pay and teacher tenure. If the dues are increased, I’ll be watching to see how much dough is actually used to fight “paycheck protection” rather than Arnold.

At this point, there’s no way to tell whether the abortion-notification plan and the dues-permission plan will fly with voters, since millions of dollars have yet to be spent in silly pre-election claims and counter-claims. I’m not yet sure how I will vote on them.

But one thing’s sure: No computer on Earth can crunch the complex calculus needed to predict which true believers and newly impassioned voters will drag themselves from their favorite TV shows to weigh in on Election Day. They may not pay much attention to politics, but, when roused, it turns out they have a lot to say.