The Case Against Propositions

Look what we, the people, have wrought.

On the face of it, it would appear that ballot initiatives are an exciting, expansively democratic reform; they allow the people, all the people, to vote directly on the issues that are most important to them or that the legisature, fearing rebuke, are simply too yellow to put on the table. Proposition 5 is an excellent example of the latter. Apparently, no one besides Governor Schwarzenegger is willing to risk their political careers to solve the greatest problem that California currently faces: prison reform. We have the most crowded prisons in the country that has the highest incarceration rate in the world.

But, by popular vote, Californians rejected Proposition 5, which would reduce prison sentences for non-violent drug offenders and offer rehabilitation instead of incarceration. The other hand taketh away as well: Californians also passed Proposition 9, which under the banner of "victims' rights," will "restrict early release of inmates to reduce prison or jail overcrowding."

Even more heart-breaking, however, Proposition 8--which amends the state constitution to include the words "only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California"--looks like it will pass. I'm saddened that on this day that should be unmixed with sorrow and unstained by bigotry--a day that is truly one of the greatest days in American history, when the president elect of these United States is a black man named Barack Hussein Obama--that I must mix my pride with disappointment. In two, moving and personal posts, Andrew Sullivan consoles:
It's too heart-breaking to write anything before we know for absolutely sure we have been defeated. And, as I tossed and turned tonight trying to sleep, after last night's massive wave of relief, I felt sure that in the long arc of history, we shall prevail.

We must never let popular votes affect our own internal sense of our worth, our equality, our dignity as human beings. Our marriages are real; all that is at issue is whether a majority will recognize them in law. The next generation already does. We shall overcome. Do not be discouraged.
The question is: why can the state constitution be amended by a popular vote?

In the federal government there is an intricately wrought system of checks and balances to prevent what happened in California yesterday. Clearly, we can be moved by fear and demagoguery too easily to allow such vital decisions to be made by thin majorities whose minds may soon change again. Let us learn from the vision of government cast in the form of the US Constitution, a vision that trusts people to make wise choices about who should lead them and govern in their stead, empowering voters to elect and hold accountable representatives, but that does not expect nor demand each individual to make every decision with the objectivity and clarity required to govern both effectively and fairly. There is a reason that amendments to the US Constitution must pass both houses of congress by two-thirds and then be ratified by the states. In California, we just learned that the hard way.

1 comment:

Zane said...

Thank you for this. While Obama delivered his acceptance speech I had tears of relief streaming down my face. Once I had turned off the television and silence settled around me, I broke down and cried with grief. Yesterday everyone was talking excitedly about the day that America overcame its bigoted past, while four states blatantly wrote discrimination into their laws and constitutions. Months ago Prop 8 appeared to be headed for defeat. That's when proponents changed their campaign tactics and began asking potential voters if they were ready to have their children learn about gay people in school. Losing the right to marry is devastating, both economically and emotionally. But I found myself more horrified by the statement Californians made that they did not want me or my community to be visible in educational environments. Knowing that a majority of voters in California want me to stay hidden and care so much about maintaining my invisibility that they would vote it into their constitution, makes it difficult for me to celebrate this day when we supposedly overcame our discriminatory ways.

Elections in California are the most frustrating and disempowering voting experiences I've ever had. In my first year of residency I voted in three elections. I studied the propositions for days ahead of time. I read the voter guide, the proponent and opponent websites. I researched the funding sources for the advertisements. Despite this commitment to accessing information, I still felt woefully unprepared to make such important legislative decisions. Very few voters take time to research the issues prior to arriving at their polling place. While I believe that California was well intentioned when it implemented this form of government, I do believe that we need to revisit its efficacy. And even if we don't, a simple majority should never have enough power to rewrite a constitution.