Don’t NOT Vote…

I’m back in Orange County today while my son attends another play at Cal State Fullerton, which, from hearing him talk, might be what you’d get if Stratford-on-Avon mated with Broadway. Uh, okay. Sitting and waiting in Starbucks, I pick up a discarded OC Register Sunday Commentary Section, and see a friendly face on the front page, Jill Stewart, who I just mentioned the other day. She has a great column today that begins this way:

Have you noticed how, the more money the union and corporate special interests spend to promote their particular candidate, bond measure, or tax, the less interested and less aware of these issues we voters seem to be?

Although record amounts are being spent in California to drag us out away from our plasma TVs and our favorite blogs, we, the electorate, are deeply uninvolved. We are stuck in our comfy chairs.

How true. I’m going to vote Tuesday, but I expect to have to spend a lot of time in the voting booth reading over some of the propositions, because with one or two exceptions (the oil tax and the cigarette tax), I don’t understand what most of them are. Which are the ones that were Gov. Schwarzenegger’s grand deal with the legislature, the infrastructure bonds that are supposed to prepare California for the wave of population that, er, actually started arriving 20 years ago? I have no idea.

The advertising has been more unhelpful than usual. There’s one proposition that has been called a “taxpayer trap.” That’s all they say: Vote no on the “taxpayer trap.” To make sure I get the point, there’s a huge graphic of an old-fashioned mousetrap with what looks like a house from Monopoly being used as bait. So, does that mean if I give into temptation and try to take that nice little house, I’ll be caught in the taxpayer trap? The ad gives no further information. Then there’s another one that, if I recall correctly, implores me not to be fooled: Such-and-such proposition is bad for the environment. Since I had not heard of this proposition, listed only by number, I figure it’s unlikely that I’ve been fooled — but maybe, subliminally, I have.

I vote in every election, so in fact I will do my homework. But, as Jill Stewart suggests, most voters see these ads and figure the safest place to weather the election is from that comfy chair. So many traps out there, so many people trying to fool you! And if you’re just going to vote no, why bother showing up at all?

And that’s the special-interest strategy, Stewart suggests: To keep turnout “horrifically low.”

Little wonder why voters will stay away Nov. 7, and why record monies spent will be inversely related to votes cast. I figure a cost of $52 per vote.

The sharp pollster Mark Baldassare, director of research at Public Policy Institute of California, tells me, “What is going on is that a lot of money is spent on directing relatively few people to vote, and telling the rest of them to stay home. Campaign consultants … buy a list telling them who the voters are, they winnow it down to the 50 percent they need, and they try to get as many of the other people not to vote. And it works. This is no accident, that we are spending more money and getting less voters.”

The special interests get a bonus from this system, too, Stewart says. For an initiative to qualify in the next election, it must collect signatures equaling 5 percent of the total votes cast for governor. With the 2006 gubernatorial race pretty much a wipeout, and an initiative ballot full of obscure traps and tricks, turnout will be low, and so the 5 percent threshold in 2007-10 will be easier to meet, leading to “an onslaught of ballot measures.”

Who benefits from these ballot measures? They aren’t serious attempts to change the law, for the most part, are they? Given the overwhelmingly persuasive influence of the “vote no, it’s a trap!” advertising, I figure that the odds are against almost any ballot measure now–the good, the bad or the ugly. So who benefits? The election industry, that’s who — TV and radio stations who get to sell lots of advertising, the media buyers and other consultants. A full slate of initiatives, no matter how doomed, means full employment in the campaign and elections industry.

Back in my Berkeley days, I used to stop many late nights at Top Dog, which was run by some hard-core libertarians. The inside of Top Dog was decorated with libertarian bumper stickers. One of them was, “Don’t Vote. It Only Encourages Them.” But after reading Jill’s column, I think that slogan is due for an update. Voting is the last thing “they” want you to do. Don’t NOT vote. It Only Empowers Them.

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