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Why we vote

September 25, 2006

BALLOT-FATIGUED CALIFORNIANS, who in six weeks face their third election in a year, can be forgiven if they feel left out of the action. Voters elsewhere will see brutal political warfare between Republicans and Democrats for control of Congress -- but all seats here appear safe. The battle for Congress will not be decided in California.

Yet on Nov. 7, voters here will decide the shape of the state's finances and the health of its infrastructure for decades to come, and will set a course for leadership at a time of unprecedented growth and demographic change. Every election is touted as pivotal, but with an almost unfathomable $46 billion in bond measures on this ballot, and up to $3 billion annually in new taxes, it's hard to dismiss the coming vote as just another day at the ballot box.

Californians love direct democracy -- and they couldn't care less about it. They have gone to the polls to recall the governor, limit the power of the Legislature and impose specific taxes to pay for new programs. And yet, participation in state elections has fallen dramatically since 1994, with turnout in the June primary a record low 33.6% of registered voters. There's a sense that Californians must fix the outrages perpetrated on them by Sacramento -- or by their predecessors at the ballot box -- but it's never quite clear how to do it.

In 2002, for example, voters approved $550 million a year for after-school programs. But to date, not a single dollar from the measure has been spent. In 2004, voters decided to fund a DNA databank of suspected felons, but there is now an unprecedented backlog of unprocessed DNA samples.

How is a voter to wade through 13 ballot measures, seven statewide races and a seat on the obscure state Board of Equalization without fear of unforeseen consequences? There is no good answer. Ballot propositions, in particular, have become so bloated and misleading that they often defy understanding.

But if a newspaper editorial board is good for anything, it's to wade through the political muck of campaign season and identify some of the more important issues and principles at stake. At the same time, no list of principles can apply universally. With candidates, for example, it's not enough to know where they stand on the issues. A voter also must have some faith in the person's ability to inspire confidence and act with integrity.

With ballot measures, the examination must go beyond the strategy of an impulse buyer at Target. It's not enough to ask "Do we want this?" or even "Can we afford this?" Each new bond or tax that promises new revenue also threatens to constrain the budget or harm the business climate.

This page, and voters, also must be increasingly skeptical of the sock-the-villains proposition craze -- the trend of matching popular causes with unpopular deep pockets. The day may soon come when Californians vote themselves an afternoon coffee break, courtesy of Big Tobacco or Big Oil. Initiatives shouldn't be a form of communal extortion. We encourage you to consider each measure's merits. Enjoy your chance to pick your representatives -- and to do a little legislating of your own while you're at it.

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