Propositions: Just Say No?

By Becky O’Malley
Thursday October 23, 2008 - 10:01:00 AM

Thanks to the modern magic of cell phones, I’ve done a phone survey this week of friends working around the country to elect Barack Obama. A Chicago friend, from a long line of radical leftists, has been enjoying what is probably her first opportunity for enthusiastic participation in a national election. Illinois itself, of course, is Obama country, but she made field trips to neighboring battleground states: Wisconsin, Michigan and Indiana. She points with pride to the news that McCain has given up on Michigan, a victory for which she personally claims credit.  

Another friend who recently moved to Virginia called while she was standing in line waiting to get into an Obama rally at a football stadium in Richmond. It was supposed to start at 10, but by noon there were still huge crowds outside trying to get in. She reported that there wasn’t a parking place left in downtown Richmond—she had to drive her car back home to park and take a taxi to the stadium. The crowd, she said, was approximately evenly mixed racially, though she thinks African-Americans are the majority in Richmond proper, and she said everyone was in high good humor despite unseasonably cold weather.  

Virginia was considered a red state until recently, but it’s looking bluer all the time. One exception to the trend: the Virginia National Guard truck parked near the stadium, prominently displaying McCain-Palin banners. Is this legal? 

The third report was from an Oakland friend, trained as a lawyer, though now by preference a working musician and teacher. She signed up with the voter protection program of the Obama campaign, and she’s spending these two weeks in Florida making sure that everyone has a chance to vote.  

The Miami polling place she’s been assigned to is overwhelmingly African-American. It is an amalgamation of several smaller precincts which opened for early voting on Monday. She called me from her post outside the door of the polling place to describe a carnival-like atmosphere of excited voters, standing in long lines even though voting had barely begun.  

She sounds like she’s having a fine time herself—it’s a great party. She’s a tiny grey-haired white woman, the only white person there much of the time, and she reports being treated like a celebrity by the hospitable locals. She did manage to get into the Obama rally on Sunday, but since she’s so small, she couldn’t see Barack himself. Finally, a great big guy standing next to her offered to lift her up like he would a child, and she got just a glimpse of the candidate in person. 

She said that at first there were not enough voting machines—there were malfunctions at two of the three voting stations at her location. The actual votes were recorded on paper ballots, with scanners to tally the marks, but there was also a different type of machine which was used to verify the identification which voters in Florida must submit before they can vote. The Obama organization has been trying to arrange to get more machines transferred from predominantly white precincts which don’t have any problems. 

These early voters have a high percentage of people with physical problems which make them want to avoid the even longer lines they expect on Election Day—AIDS, arthritis, the general infirmities of old age—but they’re patient, even exuberant, despite their ailments. My friend told me about one woman of 89 who brought her walker to the polling place and needed to sit down a lot. She said she wanted to vote early because she’d never have this chance again. Her daughter, thinking the reference was perhaps to approaching mortality, said of course she would be able to vote another time. With a touch of indignation, the mother said that she certainly planned to vote again, but this was her only chance to vote for the first African-American president. 

Everyone there, just like the people in Richmond, was having a really good time, my friend said. She described a guy with a beat-up old car with a loudspeaker on top who’s made up a song about voting for Obama which he’s playing outside the voting stations all day every day.  

As a Californian, she’s been surprised by the number of Creole-speaking Haitian-Americans who’ve come to vote. This location also has a number of Spanish-speaking voters but no Spanish interpreter, so she’s been doing that job too. Despite some glitches, she says, everything’s basically going well, and she’s sure everyone will get their votes counted in this election, thanks to the smoothly running efforts of the Obama campaign. 

Back home, our excitement for the presidential campaign has to be mostly vicarious now that California looks like a sure thing. I did get an anguished e-mail from my new-citizen friend, who was trying to plough through the state propositions and couldn’t make head or tail of them. He’d gotten 8 and 4 figured out all right, but the rest confounded him, despite the fact that he has the equivalent of a Ph.D. and an excellent command of English. Other well-educated friends—she’s trained as a lawyer, he’s an optometrist—asked if there’s any reason not to just vote no on all of them.  

Well, truthfully, I had to say that I couldn’t think of one. Several represent appealing concepts—be kind to animals, public transit, greenishness, etc.—but the implementation of them described in the ballot initiatives is dubious in all cases. 

Take the high-speed train, for example. Unanswered questions include the route (if it’s wrong, it will destroy critical wildlife habitat and migration trails) and the location of stops (in the central valley, if there are stops in the wrong places, that could induce urban sprawl).  

My lawyer friend, the daughter of one of those fabled Petaluma chicken farmers, had plenty to say about the inadequacies of the chicken-protection system contemplated by Proposition 2. And well-regarded environmental organizations have come out against both 7 and 10—those are the purportedly greenish ones. 

Then there’s the redistricting proposal, Proposition 11, the brainchild of what us old Dems used to call the Goo-Goos, the Good Government people, in this case Common Cause and the League of Women Voters. I can’t forget that Common Cause thought up the bad and much-abused idea of Political Action Committees, PACs, or that the League of Women Voters has locally endorsed the dreadful Berkeley Measure LL with no apparent input from its thoughtful opponents.  

And for the life of me, I can’t figure out why Prop. 11’s behind-the-scenes redistricting commission appointed by the two major parties would be any better than redistricting in the legislature, which at least gets a fair amount of public and press scrutiny. The commission plan does add a few members in the famous undecided category, but in my political experience undecided usually means uninformed. Some change is needed, but this isn’t it.  

With all those eager citizens lining up to get their chance to vote in other parts of the U.S., it does seem churlish to say that just turning down the whole California slate of propositions might be the prudent path out here, but it’s tempting. I wonder if anyone will be able talk me out of it.