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Deciphering Ballot Is a Losing Proposition

November 01, 1990|GARRY ABRAMS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When Ellen Stern Harris heard that a science-fiction screenwriter wanted to attend her meeting on next Tuesday's California ballot propositions, she responded--only half in jest--that he would be visiting the right place.

Kidding aside, Harris was deadly serious that this fall's election is like a visit to a strange planet.

"We are all now legislators without term limits," the longtime consumer and environmental activist warned about 25 friends and acquaintances gathered at her Beverly Hills home for a private cram course on the wide range of initiatives on the November ballot.

Then, while coffee was served and bowls of cookies passed around, those attending got a three-hour overview of the surreal, intimidating topography of the 28 propositions.

The meeting was Harris' idea, spawned in a year of greater than usual voter outrage over taxes, unbalanced budgets and the high jinks of politicians.

Harris, executive director of the Fund for the Environment, says she hopes that such meetings will "proliferate throughout California" because "we need all the enlightened voters we can help to create."

But unlike many voters, Harris was able to call on the expertise of two political professionals--Robert Stern and Craig Holman of the California Commission on Campaign Finance, a small, private think-tank that is studying the initiative process.

Stern and Holman told their audience that they were about to enter a strange world of legal verbiage, proposal and counter-proposal.

And, they added, don't forget the two-part election summary sent to all voters. It totals 224 pages, longer than most minimalist novels and even some of Cher's shopping lists.

Stern and Holman acknowledged that the initiative process has become "quite a mess" that challenges the skills of even full-time politics-watchers.

Leona Mattoni, a former precinct worker, said she now refuses to sign petitions for any ballot initiatives. "I'm just so fed up with this," Mattoni said, referring to the proliferation of propositions in recent elections.

David Levering, a history professor at Cal Poly Pomona, wanted to know if Proposition 128, which would require more government regulation regarding the environment, won't just create more jobs for lawyers.

Holman gave Levering the bad news: "That isn't just Prop. 128, it's the initiative process in general."

Meanwhile, hostess Harris passed around a full-page newspaper ad that has been appearing around the country. Headlined, "I'm Mad as Hell and I'm Not Going to Take it Anymore," the advertisement details why one voter is fed up with government gridlock.

Despite all the ominous signs of disenchantment, both in the meeting and the world at large, Stern finds reasons for optimism.

After every election, no matter how complex and bitter, "Everyone is always amazed at how rational California voters are," he said.

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