Eleven Choices

April 28, 2016 Apr 28, 2016
   US Politics

I've a California primary ballot sitting on my desk. The ballot is short as California ballots go but it's rich in complexity and it makes me think about what it means to be a member of a semi-direct democracy.

The June ballot has eleven choices, everything from issuing debt to choosing local officials to choosing the President of the US. Again, small for California, and of course nothing like the famous 135-person ballot that saw Schwarzenegger replace Gray Davis.

Want it even more direct? Check out the recent Flash Forward podcast, "Swipe right for democracy", where they estimated that voters would face something like fifteen choices per day in a pure direct democracy. Maybe California's ballot isn't so onerous.

Fortunately, my ballot arrived in my email with plenty of time to review the accompanying voter guide and meet the June 7 deadline. Both the county and the state provide excellent guides. Kudos to California: they know how to hold an election.

So, what's on the ballot? Let's see, there are eleven choices:

  • Seven candidates for US President
  • Six candidates for county central committee
  • Thirty-four candidates for US Senate
  • Five candidates for US House
  • Two candidates for California Senate
  • Two candidates for California House
  • One candidate for Auditor, Controller, Tax collector
  • One candidate for District Attorney
  • An initiative to allow the legislature to suspend a member
  • A $310M bond for Cabrillo community college
  • A $67M bond for the Santa Cruz library

I have the sense that every California ballot has to include a few bonds. Mind you, the debt is usually for a good cause, like this ballot's libraries and schools, so I usually vote yes, but I also wonder if I am really the best person to be deciding these things. This is of course above and beyond the fact that I don't even live in California so why should I have a say in their debt.

Here's another interesting aspect of this ballot: the presidential candidates are all Democrats vying for a single slot on the November ballot (where she or he will likely be competing with a certain short-fingered vulgarian) whereas the US Senate candidates are a mix of all the parties, and the top two will face each other in November.

After spending some time looking at this ballot I'm not sure what I think of our direct democracy. It's a lot more direct than where I now live, which has a parliamentary system. I worry about my qualifications as a voter and I puzzle over our choice of candidates. But somehow it all works: one election ends, another starts. We keep deciding and deciding and deciding yet again. It's certainly better than having no choices. The challenge is in designing how many decisions do we want to make, and how many can we delegate. How direct do we want to be? And will a more direct approach create a better society? I'd wager it inevitable that some jurisdictions will experiment with more direct models and perhaps, with time, it will become a way to get people more engaged.