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Outcomes on State Propositions Yield Paradoxes and Contradictions


It came way at the bottom of a long election ballot, but Proposition 218--to make it tougher for local governments in California to raise taxes--easily won voter approval Tuesday.

That was no surprise because Proposition 218 was another in a long list of initiative measures sponsored by the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn. and approved by California voters since the taxpayer revolt of 1978. The use of the Jarvis name, for the hero of the Proposition 13 campaign back then, works virtual magic at the polls.

But look further and the voting patterns on the 15 ballot measures appear to defy historic records and seem to be fraught with contradiction and paradox.

For example, what sort of an electorate would vote strongly for Proposition 209, the anti-affirmative action initiative and a cornerstone of Gov. Pete Wilson's conservative agenda, and yet favor giving Californians the right to grow and use marijuana for medical purposes, which to many is a keystone of social liberalism?

Consider another paradox from Tuesday's voting: to raise the minimum wage, a standby of the old Democratic liberal-organized labor agenda, and on the other hand, to approve Proposition 218, the tax limit measure.

And while Californians were clamping down on taxes with one hand Tuesday, the voters also came within a whisker of passing a "tax-the-rich" measure, Proposition 217, which would have reinstated the state income tax's two top brackets.

For all of that, however, Jim Shultz, an expert on the California initiative process, said Wednesday, "This was a very discerning electorate. One of the things that [the] election indicates is that voters pick and choose."

California voters always have seemed to exercise considerable independence and thought--largely putting ideology aside--in the manner in which they practice this form of participatory democracy.

But in some years they get mad as hell and pretty much just vote no. In 1990, 10 of 13 ballot measures were defeated.

This year, it appears that they were in part sending a subtle message to government to back off from meddling in their personal affairs--that for all the concern and political sensitivity about drug use, there may be a niche for it to help those who are severely ill and in pain.

In a way, the vote on Proposition 209 sounds a similar message in rejecting government intervention in the form of preferences in matters of public hiring, education and contracting.

And for the second time in recent years, voters rejected a state bond issue to build more jail and prison facilities--a seeming contradiction to the many tough-on-crime measures embraced by voters in the 1980s and 1990s.

A majority of voters Tuesday appeared to accept the argument of opponents that the solution to the crime problem was not just to build more county jails and prisons. And they specifically made the point in the ballot pamphlet that a defeat would not mean that dangerous three-strikes criminals would go free. Those felons are housed in state prisons and not in county jails, they noted.

One key reason for the apparent contradictions in the votes on various propositions is simple and understandable: The California electorate is a massive collection of voting groups that is as diverse and fractured as the geology of California and is not likely to vote in sync with each other on most issues.

"California is not a monolith," said Susan Pinkus, acting director of the Los Angeles Times Poll.

The Times' exit poll showed that the vote in favor of Proposition 209 was heavily Republican, male and white. Groups that voted strongly against it included Democrats and liberals, blacks, Latinos and Asian Americans.

The measure won less than 30% of the vote in heavily Democratic San Francisco County. It passed with a margin of 64%-36% in heavily Republican and conservative Orange County.

On the other hand, Proposition 215, the marijuana measure, won 78% of the vote in San Francisco and got a slight majority in Orange, 52%-48%.

In fact, Pinkus said, 26% of the voters cast their ballots in favor of 209 and 215. Sixteen percent voted against both.

Shultz, executive director of the Advocacy Institute West and author of "The Initiative Cookbook," said: "I think there's an element of people voting on what they can relate to from personal experience. They looked at both, and they could see themselves in a position where they would be affected by both of them."

In his book on initiatives, Shultz lays out a variety of scenarios or conditions under which proposed initiatives pass or fail.

"An initiative like Proposition 215 hits a nerve where there's no way you can stop the public from voting for it, where there's a visceral connection."

Over the 85-year history of the initiative in California, Shultz said, there have been three basic types of ballot initiatives. One classification consists of social issues that come from the right of the political spectrum. Another group concerns redistribution of economic benefits and usually originates from the political left.

"Then there is 'cleaning up government,' which tends to be a battle of who can put together a coalition that is ideologically diverse," he said.

Four ballot measures supported by public interest groups--two competing ones on health care and two on campaign finance reform--were on Tuesday's ballot. Three of the four failed.

Meanwhile, California business interests successfully combined forces to attack seven ballot measures Tuesday as "job killers." Six of them were defeated.

"This was an election in which business was more unified and strategic than ever," Shultz said. "On the other hand, the public interest groups were more divided."

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