Saturday's election results show that election reform isn't necessary when you have a thoughtful electorate.
Admittedly, 9% turnout is abysmal, but I think it is a little premature to despair over the failure of representative democracy. Look at the voting pattern. There is none. No strong pro- or anti-incumbent or proposition vote. Only 9% of the voters turned out, but those who did really thought about how they voted. This argues against single-member districts, empowering the disinterested and neutering the committed, and really argues for trusting the interested voter. Obviously, up and down the line, we see split votes. People voted for some incumbents and against others. They voted yes on some propositions and no on others. There is no clear pattern. Given the first four propositions generated the most press, the rejection of the seventh proposition is impressive. The people who did vote took their responsibility very seriously.
The vote was surprising in so many ways, but the most disappointing aspect of the election was not the turnout nor the results -- it was the too-short time frame for analysis of the propositions. We have three dealing with serious campaign finance reform, one on single-member districts, and the remaining four on issues of civic concern. Yet the amount of time we, the voters, were given to study and think about these was amazingly insufficient. Either Prop. 1 (campaign finance reform) or Prop. 3 (single-member districts) alone demanded long and serious thought and discussion. The time frame forbid this. It didn't help that both these propositions were relatively rough sketches with the details to be filled in later.
The single most surprising vote was Beverly Griffith's lack of support. Given her determined and consistent support of neighborhoods alone, one would have expected more broad-based support. Even given the conflicting views of Griffith, this vote was surprising. To some she was the one truly independent maverick voice on the council, driven by her commitment to issues more than compromise, integrity more than publicity. To others she was an inconsistent contrarian who determined what she was for and against based on what other council members were against or for in a desire to establish her individuality and gain publicity. Either view, given her six-year record, would have seemed to earn her more of the vote than she received. I'm curious as to what happened, though I think being associated with Linda Curtis didn't help.
The most controversial vote is Prop. 1's defeat coupled with the defeat of propositions 2 and 4 -- a vote against further campaign finance reform but in favor of the current campaign reforms, despite their obvious negative effects. The pro-Prop. 1 supporters are going to claim that true reform was defeated by last-minute, big-money infusions from mysterious sources. Whereas there are certainly questions to be raised about the anti-Prop. 1 campaign (some of which Lee Nichols raises this week in the News section), give the voters more credit. The campaign in favor was so smug and arrogant, so "this is righteous, and any questions asked are impertinent," so quick and sketchy, given the complexity of the issue and the basic, profound changes demanded, that the voters responded with appropriate caution.
The Chronicle offices received several calls and e-mails late last week insisting we explore the financing behind the anti-Prop. 1 campaign, as though the revelation that it was being funded by real estate and business interests would change anyone's vote. Sure, I was against Prop. 1, but just a suggestion here: Rather than viewing this as part of the ongoing struggle between good and evil with the environmental/progressive community in the former role and the real estate/business in the later, how about a different approach? Maybe this was the dreamers versus the more practical types. Why was the RE/B community against Prop. 1? Because they thought it would empower the people and lessen their special interest power? Maybe, just maybe, it was because the measure was impractical, would enrich mediocre candidates, and cost the city too much. Keep in mind that if Prop. 1 had passed, the RE/B community would have been perfectly poised to exploit the hell out of it.
The demand for campaign reform is based on the insistence that democracy is not working. What may be the complicated intricacies of an empowered constituency has been watered down to the triumph of evil (money) over the people. On E-Town on KGSR on Sunday, Jim Hightower declared the victory of public financing. He cited elections in a number of places, including Maine, where many elected were un-beholden to big-money interests' campaign contributions. Call me cynical, but I think we need to wait a lot longer before the verdict is in.
If you believe that unbridled elections create the problem of big-money power in the political process, then rejoice. If like me, you think elections are somewhat coincidental, that big money is there more to achieve goals than pervert elections, then rather than a successful conclusion, we're barely through the first chapter. Excluding money from elections doesn't make it go away but only causes it to ooze into the system in other ways, some far more difficult to track. Ironically, reform empowers lobbyists more than voters. Certainly it sounds progressive and thrilling that citizen legislators will control the political process, but let's wait a generation to see the consequences. What will be the impact on legislators of modest means and little political experience of money's insidious intrusion into their lives?
Remember, great lobbyists are not cartoon caricatures spewing fine liquor and Cuban cigars. They are the most knowledgeable folks on their positions/legislation, dealing more in information than call girls. Their job is to tell legislators how voting a certain way is actually best for their constituents. Which doesn't mean wining and dining is not part of the equation. It does mean that it's way too early to celebrate the success of campaign finance reform and public campaign financing where it has passed. It also just might mean that the folks who opposed Prop. 1 here in Austin were more concerned with the integrity of the political process than they are granted by their opponents.
I've often talked about trusting the voters. Keep in mind here a variation on Lincoln's caution about fooling the people -- even trusting the voters is not to trust all of them nor even most of them all the time -- witness the Naderites. But folks, how could you keep term limits?!?
Hey, this is our "Summer Fun" issue, so let's get on to it.