The following are some loosely organized thoughts about an initiative measure on California’s ballot, Proposition 37. The proposal is for a requirement to label foods sold in the state that contain–or potentially contain–genetically modified (GM) ingredients.
As someone who has grown organic, usually buys organic, and has some belief (which I can’t claim to be proven) of an allergy to some GM products, I would be inclined towards a yes vote. However, this is not an easy one for me, because there are numerous problems with the measure.
When I look at the list of supporters and opponents, I don’t really like those I’d be siding with if I voted no. If we look upon it as a battle of organized interests over distribution of rents, I’ll go with the organic industry over Monsanto and DuPont every time. But if we’re concerned about good government and sensible consumer-information provision, it’s an easy no.
This is a bad way to go about labelling. Prop 37 has zero tolerance for GM traces,1 which means the standard for commingling will be stricter for conventionally grown foods than for organic. The EU and Australia/New Zealand standards allow trace amounts, and it’s almost impossible to avoid some cross-contamination. So almost every non-organic item will bear the label, if 37 passes. What use is that? It’s better to have a standard for “GM free” (but not organic, given that organic us GM-free, within the allowed tolerance) than to label almost everything conventional as (potentially) having GMO. And, of course, there already exist third-party certifications for GMO-free, or you can buy organic. On the other hand, if you agree that our political system has been mostly deaf to calls for stricter standards–as I do–then it’s an easy yes. To me, a yes vote is more a crying out for political attention than a vote for the specific set of standards this would impose.
Fortunately, as far as I can tell. Prop 37 doesn’t have an amendment clause preventing legislative adjustment. One principle I adhere to in most propositions is vote no, whatever the seeming merits, if only a subsequent initiative can amend the proposition. Others require 2/3 votes of the legislature to amend–also bad, but not as bad. I don’t see any such clause in this one, which I think means it would be just like an ordinary statute.
I also dislike, on principle, prop 37′s clause allowing lawsuits against retailers without a “harm” standard.
Further, I dislike that dried fruits are classified as “processed” and therefore subject to labeling requirement. It won’t affect me, because I eat only organic fruits, usually grown right under my own watchful eye. But on principle, this just is non-sensical. (The “processing” designation also applies to smoking, canning, and other preparations that involve only the fruit or vegetable, which is not how I think of “processed foods” more generally.)
I will probably end up voting yes, despite my very significant reservations. It will be a political vote for me, not a policy vote. And that’s all right; as long as we have this nutty initiative process, I might as well vote to push things in a direction I favor, even if the measure is very far from perfect. If I were to learn before Tuesday that I am wrong in my belief that this could be amended by future action of the legislature, I might vote no. For sure, there will be “amendments” from the courts, but that certainly doesn’t make this initiative particularly unusual.
Much of this paragraph is based on my reading of the proposal itself (see first link above), and some of it on a report by researchers at the Giannini Foundation of Agricultural Economics at UC Davis. [↩]
I am passing along the following action alert, dated 15 June, from Californians for Electoral Reform:
The San Francisco Board of Supervisors will, as early as June 26th, consider placing on the November ballot a charter amendment that will repeal RCV for all city-wide elections (Mayor, Sheriff, District Attorney, City Attorney, Treasurer, Assessor-Recorder, and Public Defender), replacing them with a two-round runoff. The first election will be held in September; if no candidate receives 65% or more of the vote (yes, it establishes a 65% winning threshold), the top two go on to a November runoff, seven or eight weeks after the first election. (RCV is kept for the Board of Supervisor elections.)
We need you to contact your Supervisor and tell them why you are opposed to it and ask them to vote against putting it on the ballot. We especially need people who live in District 5, Supervisor Olague’s district, to lobby her, as she may be the swing vote on this issue.
If you don’t know what district you live in, this link should help you.
Additional things to note: San Francisco isn’t used to voting in September; turnout will be abysmally low.
Eight weeks isn’t enough time to certify the first election and get runoff ballots to military and overseas voters. (In some years, such as 2015, there will only be seven weeks between the elections.)
Every year in which we vote for Governor there will be *three* elections: the June statewide primary, the September San Francisco election, and the November general/City runoff election. Talk about voter fatigue, what about poll-worker fatigue!
Please note that the Board of Supervisors will NOT be taking public testimony at the meeting(s) where they consider this issue, as they took public testimony in yesterday’s Rules Committee hearing. Contacting your Supervisor personally is now the best way to make your voice heard. (In addition, you can write the Board, but please contact your Supervisor.)
President, Californians for Electoral Reform www.cfer.org
The new electoral system in California is a top-two majority runoff with the possibility of multiple candidates from one party. Please, do not call it a primary, because it isn’t. In a primary, a political party permits voters to select its candidate for the general election. However, under the new California system, the general election will now be just a runoff between the top two candidates, regardless of party. That is, at most, two parties will be represented on the general-election ballot, but it is possible for both candidates to be from the same party, or no party (if both of the top two in the first round were non-partisan).
We might call it two-round SNTV, for lack of a better term. The reference to SNTV–single non-transferable vote–calls attention to the fact that two or more candidates of the same party can be competing with each other, but co-partisans are unable to share votes with one another to ensure that they don’t divide the vote and cause none of them to advance. (As noted, the second round can also feature two candidates of one party, but then there is no risk of coordination failure, as the winner will be from that party, obviously.)
In the first use of this system this week, there are a few cases that could represent SNTV-style coordination failure. There will be several legislative races in which the November choice will come down to two candidates of the same party. Most of these are in districts with an entrenched incumbent who will happen to face a (token) intra-party challenger, so there is no coordination problem. There just is no opportunity for voters in November–who will be more numerous than they were in the first round–to register a partisan choice for one of the other parties. I will focus my attention, then, on a few cases in which the runoff contenders are from one party, and they did not combine for significantly more than half the first round votes. (This is not an exhaustive list.)
A particularly striking example occurred in US House District 8: The runoff will feature two Republicans, Paul Cook (15.5%) and Gregg Imus (15.0%). The third place candidate just missed qualifying for the runoff: Democrat Jackie Conway (14.7%). There were 11 other candidates, including a second Democrat who had 9.7%. While the combined votes of ten Republicans is over 70% and thus this was not a district a Democrat was likely to win, the Democratic Party nonetheless narrowly lost the right to even make their case to the general-election electorate.
In US House district 31, the top two candidates are both Republicans: Gary G. Miller (26.7%) and Bob Dutton (24.9%). There were four other candidates, all Democrats, and the top-scoring one, Pete Aguilar, had 22.8%, missing the runoff by just over 2 percentage points. While the two Republicans combined for a majority of the votes, they did so just barely, with 51.6%. It is not out of the question that a Democrat could have won this district–especially given the difference in turnout that we can expect, as well as the long gap between elections and the potential importance of candidate quality. But the Democrats will not get to make their case in this potentially winnable district.
In fact, this last example points to another potential pitfall of the system: even if some candidate wins a majority in the first round, there still must be a runoff. What will be really interesting is the first case in which the majority “winner” in round 1 loses round 2 due to the different turnout or other reasons. Something to watch for.
Naturally, if this is “part 2″ there was also a part 1, complete with a pretty picture!
This is an image from Orange County; there would be regional variations in format. This example seems especially bad, with some of the candidates, including the incumbent, listed in a short second column.1
That’s 24 candidates, including several with the same indicated “party preference” as others running. The electoral system is now “top two”. Rather than an actual primary, in which each of the recognized parties will winnow their field to one candidate for the general election in November, the top two–regardless of party and regardless of whether one obtains an overall majority today–will face each other in November. And only the top two, meaning no minority party presence (unless one of the third party candidates somehow manages to be in the top two).2
I am not a fan of this new system. I did not cast a vote in this particular contest.
The ballot where I voted managed to have all these candidates in a single column. [↩]
Strangely, one of the recognized parties, the Greens, has no candidate even in this first round. [↩]
Concurrent with the statewide general and national midterm elections earlier this month, the city of Oakland, California, elected its mayor. For the first time, the city used the Alternative Vote (instant runoff). The result was a bit of a surprise, in that longtime Democratic Party powerhouse Don Perata was expected to win. However, he lost to Jean Quan, who will be the city’s first woman and first Asian-American mayor.
When first-place votes were initially counted after the Nov. 2 election, Quan had just 24 percent, and Perata had 35 percent. But Quan proved to be a more popular second and third choice among supporters of the other eight candidates, and in the end, she had 51 percent to Perata’s 49 percent.
This is, of course, exactly how the system is supposed to work: ensure the election of the majority-supported candidate in the event that the candidate with the most first-preference votes is short of 50%+1 of the total votes cast. But the Perata camp is not amused. His political consultant called ranked-choice voting “an injustice” and the result a “travesty” because his candidate won 78% of the precincts, and led by a margin of 10 percentage points.
“In any other contest, it would be a landslide win, not an election loss.”
Normally, even in the realm of first-past-the-post elections, we do not think of plurality candidates with 35% as landslide winners, but Perata himself said:
“I don’t understand how ranked-choice voting works.”
Just as obviously, Quan did.
Quan had been campaigning for months for people to vote for “anybody but Don.” She had told supporters to list City Councilwoman Rebecca Kaplan as their second choice.
Kaplan, in turn, told her supporters and others to list Quan second or third.
The strategy paid off for Quan when Kaplan, who finished third, was eliminated and her votes redistributed. Quan won 75 percent of them – pushing her from a 10,372-vote deficit to a 2,058-vote victory.
Perata, the Chronicle notes, never told supporters whom they should list second or third. And, apparently, never appealed for any other candidates’ second choices. Stupid strategy, given the electoral system.
Earlier this week, I wrote about Propositions 20 and 27, which would change the process of redistricting in California. There is another measure on the ballot that also concerns the political process, in this case Proposition 25, which would alter the rules for passage of the state budget.
Currently, the state constitution requires a two-thirds vote in each house to pass a budget. Prop. 25 would allow each house of the legislature to pass the budget bill with a simple majority. Taxes would still require two thirds.
With the state regularly deadlocked thanks to the current minority-veto provision, this is a no-brainer. I will vote YES on 25, without hesitation.
Still, I wonder if the argument could be made that it would be worse to permit spending to pass by a majority, but tax increases only by 2/3, than to require the same size majority for both. Prop. 25 is a half measure, at best. But it is important to enhance the accountability of the legislative majority and reduce the minority veto power (independent of partisan control). This is long overdue.
Yet again, the voters of California are being asked to decide on the process of redistricting. This time, we are being asked not one, but two questions.
Proposition 20 would extend the current redistricting commission to include US House seats. It currently applies only to state legislative elections and the Board of Equalization (which administers the tax code). Proposition 27 would abolish the commission entirely, and return all redistricting back to the regular political process–the legislature and governor.
The current commission was enacted by voter initiative only in 2008. So, exactly one general election later, we are being asked to either extend its mandate or get rid of it.
In 2008, I expressed opposition to the measure that created the current commission. The reason is certainly not that I am not in favor of legislators getting to draw their own district boundaries. It is an inherent conflict of interest. At the time I quoted one of my favorite political reformers of all time, Henry Droop, who wrote the following lament in 1869:
from Maine westward to the Pacific Ocean, in the last ten years, in no state whatever had there been an honest and fair district apportionment bill passed for the election of members of Congress [except] where two branches of a legislature were divided in political opinion, and one checked the other.
Despite my belief that independent commissions, rather than partisan elected officials, should handle redistricting, I was against this measure because of its being effectively a bipartisan commission, rather than a really independent one, and having an unduly complex selection process. I will not belabor the arguments here; any reader who wants to see my logic at the time can read the original. There was a lively debate in the comment thread at the time.
But now I get a chance to reconsider. And I think I will vote NO on 27, that is to keep the new status quo of the redistricting commission. I still do not like the model created by this commission, but I would rather improve it than abolish it. If we put legislators back in the line-drawing business, we might never get it back. If nothing else, voter fatigue over more and more redistricting measures may set in (if it has not already!).
Now, what about extending it to cover US House districts? I believe I will vote NO on 20 as well. Again, I most certainly oppose letting legislators draw district lines. However, I have never been a fan of unilateral disarmament. The federal dimension matters here, and this measure takes California’s legislature (controlled by Democrats) out of the process of determining the boundaries of 53 House districts (12% of the total number of House seats!), with no reciprocal move by Republican-controlled states to “disarm” their legislatures from controlling a like number of districts. As I also said in the earlier post,
Thus redistricting reform in the House presumably should be done via constitutional amendment or an interstate compact (on the model of the National Popular Vote for the presidency).
I can’t say that I feel good about either of these votes. And I welcome arguments in the comments. Who knows, maybe some readers will persuade me to vote otherwise. But for now, I am voting to retain a bad existing commission (NO on 27), but not to extend its mandate to include House seats (NO on 20).
Shortly after the 2008 election, I reviewed just how uncompetitive California’s districts were. The bigger issue here is that, redistricting commission or not, it simply will not be easy to create more competitive districts. The problem of lack of competition is deeper than the process by which we draw districts for our electoral system of first-past-the-post.
Of the (too) many offices up for election in my area this November, one of the most puzzling is the Ramona Community Planning Group. This is an elected advisory body to the County Board of Supervisors. Ramona is a relatively large community, but is unincorporated.
The Planning Group (can’t they call it a board or a council rather than a group?) consists of 15 members, all elected at-large. In other words, there are no districts. In alternate biennial elections, either eight or seven are up for election. This is a “vote for no more than seven” election. It is a nonpartisan race. The only identifying information on the ballot regarding the candidates is their (self-described) occupation.
So here we have an interesting electoral system. The district magnitude is seven, and the candidates with the seven highest vote totals will be elected. It is a good example of multiple nontransferable vote (MNTV).
MNTV is often called “block vote,” but it really only functions that way if there are, in fact, identifiable “blocks” of candidates in the race and voters who tend to vote “in block.” In other words, if there are de facto parties, which have loyal voters who will go to the trouble of giving all their M (here 7) votes to candidates of the block. Otherwise, it may be more like the limited vote, with many voters using fewer than M votes.
I will certainly be one of those “limited” voters, as I can’t figure out seven candidates I would want to vote for. It is not for lack of choice. There are twenty candidates. But information is somewhat scant. Only six of the candidates submitted statements for the ballot pamphlet. Not that these are ever terribly informative. (One can track down another four on Smart Voter, but information is not extensive there, either.)
There is, however, a “block” within Ramona. It is called Citizens for a Rural Ramona (CFRR). Sounds good, given the character of the region. However, it is a classic NIMBY special-interest organization, comprised mainly of property owners in the vicinity of a proposed road extension. The extension, which would relieve traffic congestion on other streets, has been on the County planning maps for many years, but now that construction is set to start, a neighborhood group is organized to try to take control of the Planning Group.
CFRR has endorsed ten* candidates (overnomination!). Given their organization, they stand a good chance of electing several of their candidates. If their supporters have sufficient “blockness” in their use of votes (using all seven of their votes and voting only for candidates from the endorsed list) they could fill all the seats at stake in this election, even if they are not a majority of the voters. And if they are a majority, they will still be over-represented, because their blockness is sure to exceed that of other groups of voters–many of whom, like me, may cast only two or three votes.
(Three other MNTV races on my ballot are a lot less interesting. Each has M+1 candidates, M of whom are incumbents, with M ranging from 2 to 4.)
* Their website says eleven, but actually lists only ten.
California’s voter-approved law abolishing party primary elections was hit with its first lawsuit Thursday, a challenge to provisions that discard write-in votes in runoffs and limit candidates’ right to list their party preference on the ballot.
In Tuesday’s election in California, Proposition 14 would eliminate the current system of partisan primaries and institute a majority-runoff system.
It’s a bad system for voter choice, meaning no third-party or independent candidates on the November ballot (unless one of them happened to have made the top two in the first round, five months earlier when issues may have been different and turnout lower). Many districts under this “reform” may have two Democrats or two Republicans as the only candidates in the “general” election.
I agree with Stop Top Two that Californians should vote no on 14.
The LA Times has a list of some proposals for changing how California is governed. Some of them are modern and reformist, even democratizing and citizen-empowering–such as those that have been discussed in the previous thread (now up over 100 comments!) and are supported by newer businesses such as Yahoo and Google. Others are reactionary, such as a part-time legislature or requiring referenda on tax increases, supported by the usual-suspect organizations that are always out for more upward wealth distribution and other means of destroying the commons.
Shame on the California Supreme Court for, by a 6-1 vote, caving. This ruling was entirely expected, of course. It was probably even constitutionally correct, which only reinforces the need we have been discussing for an entirely new constitution.
While the argument that the reversal of a Court-granted right contained in Proposition 8 amounted to a a “revision” rather than an amendment to the constitution always seemed a stretch, its failure to convince the Court reveals the deeper problem: under what model of “good government” can a majority of voters (which might be a quarter or so of registered voters) trump the highest court of the jurisdiction when the issue at hand involves the rights of minority groups?*
There was a time when this state had a reasonably well deserved reputation as progressive. Now it has fallen behind various New England states and Iowa in the most important civil rights issue of the 21st century so far. Indeed, although the Court claims that those marriages performed in the brief era between the first Court ruling and Prop. 8 remain legal, in fact they have been placed in an illogical second-class, and hence potentially vulnerable, position.
* Whereas it takes a two-thirds vote of the legislature to pass a budget.
The voters of California, in their wisdom anger, have turned down the ‘Budget Stabilization‘ measure, giving it barely over one third of the vote. The other measures failed by similar wide margins. Except for the stupid one, which of course passed, with nearly three fourths of the vote.
The F-word* has been tossed around a lot at faculty discussions.
I suppose we are about to see what emergency powers the Governator has, because an emergency is what the state faces.
One final note: When my wife and I went to vote, about an hour before polls closed, a poll worker actually was excited to see us. He said to his colleagues, actual voters!
If by my laws you walk, and my commands you keep, and observe them,
then I will give-forth your rains in their set-time,
so that the earth gives-forth its yield
and the trees of the field give-forth their fruit.
--Vayikra 26: 3-4