Politics as Usual

Who asked you?

Ballot measures give you the illusion of being in charge

When Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer got sick of whitewashing a fence, he came up with the great idea of tricking other kids into doing the work for him. Problem solved!

When special interests want to pass a law in San Francisco or across California, they have the great idea of tricking other people into doing the work for them. They call it ballot measures or propositions. Voters feel as if they’re in control by determining whether a law is passed, but the entire ground rules have been set by the political parties, elected officials, unions, business groups, and Silicon Valley billionaires who put the measures on the ballot in the first place.

Thus it is this fall election, when we’re once again faced with a raft of local and statewide ballot measures. Let’s look at just a handful of them.


Proposition 1 would enshrine in the state constitution an individual’s right to decide whether to use contraception and whether to have an abortion. One argument against this might have been that it’s not needed, but after Republicans across the country started proposing, passing, and implementing draconian antiabortion bills in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s overturning ofRoe v. Wade, this becomes a no-brainer for passage.

Propositions 26 and 27 are both concerned with expanding sports betting in the state. Proposition 26 would permit in-person sports betting at tribal casinos and the horse racing tracks in the state. Naturally proponents say it’ll generate millions more dollars for the state coffers. Opponents basically seem to be saying it’ll be a messy enforcement and legal situation, and the lower gambling age at some tribal casinos could lure young people into gambling addictions. (Considering the fact that Methodists and Baptists have traditionally been strong opponents of gambling of any sort, it’s interesting that they are not notable opponents of this bill.)

Now, Proposition 27 would let tribes and nontribal companies run online sports betting operations. Though many tribes support Proposition 26, 50 tribes and tribal groups oppose this, as do the state Democratic and Republican parties. So why do it? Proponents, who just happen to include gaming companies such as FanDuel, DraftKings, BetMGM and others, say it will pump money into state homelessness efforts and somehow would protect against underage gambling.

There’s also Propositions 28 (funding for arts and music education), 30 (taxing millionaires for electric vehicle programs — Governor Newsom hates this one), and 31 (retain the ban on flavored tobacco ads). 

But the state proposition that deserves recognition is Proposition 29, the third attempt in recent years to force new rules on the operation of kidney dialysis clinics. Voters rejected this twice before, and yet, here it is again. I hate to tell the proposition’s proponents, but I’m not qualified to vote on this, because I have no idea what the optimal operation requirements are for kidney dialysis clinics. This is not a put-down of kidney dialysis clinics — quite the opposite. I assume this is all important enough that it should be decided by people who actually know how to run such places. Which isn’t me. It’s also not 99.999 percent of the other fine California voters who are faced with this ballot measure.


Eight of the 14 local ballot measures on our San Francisco ballot this November were being pushed by city supervisors or the mayor. Those people are literally paid to pass laws, but they are asking us to do this work for them without so much as giving us a per diem. 

These measures range from fever dreams of the far left (measure M, a punishment for people who don’t rent out residential units within a set amount of time) to two about vehicles on JFK Drive (measures I and J, plus the related  measure N about an underground parking facility in Golden Gate Park). There are two focused on affordable housing (D, which would boost affordable housing, and E, which says it would boost affordable housing but would actually boost the supervisors’ hands in stopping affordable housing), and one that would consolidate city elections to avoid us having to vote more often than in the waning years of the Weimar Republic (measure H).

The ballot goes on.

For this exercise in fence whitewashing, we’re offered nothing in return other than the surety that we’ll be voting on these things in slightly different form a year or two from now. 

A Public Policy Institute of California survey released in mid-September found Proposition 1  has the support of 69 percent of voters. Proposition 30 was supported by 55 percent; Proposition 27 was way down there with only 34 percent support. 

I can’t guess how most of these ballot measures will fair, but I will make a couple predictions. First, Proposition 1 will cruise to victory with landslide numbers. Upset Republicans can blame themselves for cementing the pro-choice vote. 

And second, we’ll be voting on the dialysis centers again in another year or two.

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