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New Cure for Ballot Fatigue: What if We All Just Voted No?

Forty-two ballot measures is too many. When will the madness stop?


Ever since San Francisco's Department of Elections tallied up all 42 state and local measures, griping about our LSAT-length ballot has become its own kind of sport. But now that it’s time to actually vote on the beast, the slog of weighing in on hundreds of pages of legal text is not a duty many are savoring. Last week, Menlo Park resident Michael Levinson took to Medium to make the case for voting no on most of California’s 17 ballot measures. Why the revolt? Because, writes Levinson, “agreeing with a ballot prop is not a good enough reason to vote for it,” particularly when the same policies could be made law by actual, you know, lawmakers.

Levinson applies a multi-part test to determine whether or not an initiative really requires us citizens to weigh in. "The only ballot measures that deserve consideration," he argues, "are those that are 1) critically important (the “compelling interest” standard), 2) well-drafted and clear, not overly specific, and reasonably future-proof, and 3) structurally impossible to pass as a regular law." For the latter, he considers laws that incumbents hate (like redistricting and campaign finance reforms) and civil rights measures that run afoul of powerful special interests (like drug legalization, prison reform, and gay marriage).

Using this test, Levinson cut the statewide ballot down from 17 votable initiatives to just 6 measures worth putting before voters: among them, gun control, the death penalty, and parole for nonviolent offenders. Read his full (and also thoroughly subjective) take here.

But what if San Franciscans put his test to work on our own obnoxiously stuffed local ballot (which includes 25 measures, in addition to the 17 from the state), and revolted? What if we all voted a straight “no” ticket, at least on the measures that don’t strictly abide by Levinson's No Doctrine? What would that look like? And could it actually motivate lawmakers to do their jobs, negotiate with each other, and reserve the ballot for its intended use, as a court of last resort? Here's what the No Approach would look like:

The Unavoidables: Taxes and Bonds
Under state law, all taxes and bonds have to go before voters, so there's no use protest-voting those—lawmakers can't pass them independently, voters would still need to ratify them. So go ahead and vote your conscience on Measures A, a 20-year, $744 million spending plan for schools, and C, an affordable housing loan program that would rely on unused money from an old seismic retrofit bond. There are seven money measures in total, which is already a lot (San Jose’s entire ballot stops at seven measures), but at least in a technical sense these belong on the ballot.

The Axe-ables: Ordinances That Don't Belong Here
Applying Levinson's method to the rest of the city ballot, we’d wager that about half the measures could earn a “when in doubt, no” vote. You can lop off most of the bottom third of the ballot, from Measure O to W, save for two taxes (the Prop V soda tax and Supervisor Jane Kim’s real estate transfer tax, Prop W). The rest of these are all ordinances, not charter amendments, so they could in theory become law the normal way. The most egregious of these is Measure X, a kind of Mission moratorium lite that preserves neighborhood space for the arts and small businesses in the Mission and SoMa. Six supervisors voted to put it on the ballot, which means that six supervisors could have passed it as legislation. The one ordinance to make an exception for is Measure T, which would restrict contributions from lobbyists, on the grounds that good-governance measures risk getting weakened by lawmakers. “Campaign finance reforms are almost always passed by the voters, because you don’t ask elected officials to write the rules on who can give them money,” says Larry Bush, founder of the pro-T group Friends of Ethics.  

The Disputables: Charter Amendments That Smell Iffy
And now to the top of the ballot, the charter amendments. Like spending decisions, charter amendments also must go before voters. But a few of these are ripe for picking off. Two are set-asides, which means they earmark money from the city’s General Fund to be spent in a certain way. These are Supervisor Scott Wiener’s Measure E, which would require the city to spend money maintaining street trees, and Measure I, which would fund services for seniors and adults with disabilities. No matter how worthy the programs they fund, set-asides have a big downside: They lock in spending at certain levels, even in tight years. If something’s important, the argument goes, why not fund it in the budget each year? To that, Wiener says: “I would love to fund trees through the normal budget process. We’ve learned over the past 40 years that it ain’t gonna happen. Trees don’t do well in the budget.” He’s right. And yet: Of the $3.1 billion available for discretionary spending in this year’s General Fund, more than a third—over $1 billion—is spoken for by set-asides that have already been passed by voters. That number is so big it’s worth repeating: one billion dollars. So, while you may agree with the goals of Measures I and E, they're essentially asking voters to tie City Hall's hands in knots that City Hall refuses to tie itself. And those knots are really hard to undo. Two big fat noes here.

Four more charter amendments are about politics. These are D (vacancy appointments), H (creating the office of public advocate), L (MTA appointments), and M (the housing commission). If you're a progressive, they're common-sense governance reforms that tilt the balance of power away from the mayor. If you're a moderate—or just someone leery of reshuffling the powers of government without playing out the consequences, intended and unintended—you might wonder how voters are supposed to know what they're really deciding here. Which means none are likely to pass Levinson’s 38-year test. No, No, No, and No.

By this count, at least 13 of San Francisco's 25 measures are game for a protest vote: D, E, H, I, L, M, O, P, Q, R, S, U, and X. That's 13 you can just cross off your homework list without feeling too guilty about it. But, the question remains, would our protest votes really send the message we're trying to send? Are the politicians who put us in this mess actually listening?

The Case For and Against the Spite Vote
Levinson's test might not make any difference if it's only deployed by guys like Levinson (people who read political manifestos on Medium), but if it's adopted by enough voters, then look out, lawmakers. “If a substantial segment of the electorate began to vote no as a protest, then, yes, politicians and others would probably put fewer props on the ballot,” says San Francisco State political science professor Jason McDaniel. But McDaniel thinks this is too unlikely to become a real strategy: “There’s a tendency to vote no if you’re confused, but it’s not the same as a protest movement.” 

Then again, City Hall might be ripe for receiving such a message right now. “I think there’s a widespread acknowledgment from the array of elected officials that we collectively messed up,” says Supervisor Aaron Peskin, the leader of the city's progressive faction. Regardless of who's to blame, the moderate Wiener doesn’t think a spite vote helps anyone. “If voters want to vote no on all the ordinances to send a message to the board not to put these on the ballot, that’s their prerogative, and I respect that,” he says. “But voting no on all of them is cutting off your nose to spite your face.”

That's not to say that Wiener doesn't have some Vote No urges himself—in fact, he's tried to rein in the power of voter iniatives before. In 2011, Wiener floated Proposition E, which would have made ballot laws more like regular laws, by allowing elected officials to modify measures passed by voters. The measure was defeated by a resounding 67 percent of the electorate. “It was the worst spanking ever delivered to me by voters,” Wiener says. “The only thing voters hate more than the number of ballot measures is the idea of giving more power to politicians."

With that history in mind, yes, a spite vote does feel a tad hypocritical. But hey, we're voters, we're allowed to contradict ourselves. So try it on for size: No. Louder? NO. Can we get a HELLA NO? HELLA NO!

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