Democracy: the most populous US state does it the direct way

At this point, it’s really time to switch off the TV. Forget about the presidential candidates circus – you know who you’re going to vote for anyway – and start doing your real homework. Because like in most progressive American states, in California, which has almost 40 millions residents and an economy that surpassed France’s this year, the population has to go to the polls prepared like for an exam.

Do you want to abolish the death penalty ? Do you want kids to be able to learn in a bilingual environment ? Do you want to legalize marijuana ? Do you want porn people to legally have to wear condoms on set ? And these are just the easiest questions to sum up in one sentence, out of 17, that Californians will have to answer next week.

Some others are more complex, draw less attention than the usual suspect marijuana, but are equally if not much more important for the citizens of the most populous state in America : they concern income tax on the wealthy, school funding, healthcare, public project funding, guns control, the environment, transparency in the legislature, tobacco tax, juvenile sentencing, and pricing of prescription drugs.

In total, the voter guide in California for the election coming on November 8 is 224 pages long. There is a little bit of color on the front and last page, but in between, it’s just black ink paragraph after paragraph on greyish recycled paper. Better for the environment, but for the brain, it requires focus. Each proposition chapter features an official title and summary, followed by an analysis by the “legislative analyst”, a description of arguments in favor and against the proposition, and even a rebuttal to these arguments, generally made by people who officially support and oppose the text. These people can be nurse practitioners, healthcare workers, citizens and lobbyists of all kinds.

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At a public meeting organized by the Democratic Party in Santa Monica, supporters of the different initiatives came to explain the propositions, in two night events moderated by political journalist David Dayen.

For example, concerning the proposition 63, which prohibits the possession of large-capacity ammunition magazines among other things, Margot Bennett, the executive director of Women Against Gun Violence, came to say how these were “critical safety measures” and that voting for them through a public initiative would “make it harder” to amend them. She affirmed that California was “a model for the rest of the country” and had to show it once again on the guns issue.

Voters in California, like in other regions on the West Coast, in the North East and in the area around Chicago, are used to having to decide on many issues. In most cases, the proposed measures actually come from them, as popular initiatives. This year, 15 propositions were put on the ballot by citizens through signature petitions. Only two came from elected officials in Sacramento. One that would have set the minimum wage at $15/hour has been removed because a bill that will implement it by 2022 was passed by the state legislature.

Another measure, putting the actual number of propositions to 18 this year, has already been put on the ballot in June, during the primary, and was easily passed. It was an amendment proposed by a State Senator “designed to stop salaries, pension benefits, and other rights and privileges for a state legislator who is suspended”, explains the website Ballotpedia.org.”Eighteen measures is the average number of measures California voters decided each even-numbered year from 1996 through 2014″, it says.

Typical of liberal states widely voting for the Democratic party, the direct democracy system has also become an incredible cash machine, because of all the money needed to advertise around the propositions. According to the Los Angeles Times, this year the referendum industry topped 452 millions of dollars.

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