‘No’ vote is powerful only if you cast it

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Getting people to turn out this November is key to defeating high dollar initiatives

San Francisco Chronicle

The following commentary by Jamie Court, author of “Corporateering: How Corporate Power Steals Your Personal Freedom And What You Can Do About It” (Tarcher/Putnam), and who works with Electionwatchdog.org, was published in the San Francisco Chronicle on Sunday, October 30, 2005:

Nurses, firefighters, cops, teachers and Planned Parenthood have called upon California’s progressive voters to just say no to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger-backed ballot measures in the Nov. 8 special election.

The problem for them is that getting out the public for a “no vote” is like turning vegans out for dinner at Harris’ Steak House. Abstinence seems to be the only sensible course when there’s nothing for you on the menu.

But the main power of voters in the ballot measure process has been and always will be the power to say “no” to what they perceive as rip-offs, abuses of power and dishonest agendas.

Voters typically reject about two-thirds of all initiatives. Even landmark initiative victories tend to be rejections of status quo policies, like Prop. 103’s rollback of insurance premiums and Prop. 13’s limits on skyrocketing property tax rates.

Now comes the Nov. 8 election and Propositions 73, 74, 75, 76, 77 and 78, all backed by groups with lots of campaign money. If history is any indication, rejecting the shifts in the balance of power proposed by anti-abortion, anti-labor, big industry and right-wing groups will cause these groups to steer clear of the ballot process for a long time.

Big industries of all sorts, for instance, have long sought to curb the legal rights of injured consumers to take them to court. But repeated defeats in the initiative process have discouraged further efforts for a decade at a time.

In March 1996, high-tech tycoons led a coalition of Wall Street investment firms, oil companies and banks to propose three ballot initiatives restricting the legal rights of defrauded investors and injured consumers to sue. Rejection of all three ballot measures (Propositions 200, 201, 202) stopped big businesses from proposing any initiative curbing consumers’ access to justice for eight more years.

The insurance industry learned just such a lesson on the same issue eight years earlier in 1988. Insurers backed three ballot measures to limit policyholders’ legal rights and remedies — Propositions 101, 104 and 106. After spending more than $60 million for their measures — and against landmark insurance reform Prop. 103 — the industry lost each battle. For eight years after that defeat, the insurance industry did not author or sponsor a single ballot broadside attacking California consumers’ legal remedies.

The ambitions of less well-heeled progressive groups have also succumbed to the power of the “no” vote.

In 1990, liberal groups sponsored initiatives for a “Nickel per Drink” alcohol tax to fund health care, “Big Green” environmental protection and “Forests Forever.” Industry opponents put on counter-measures to confuse voters. The strategy worked in a ballot known as “the Big No,” where 23 of 27 ballot measures were voted down. Similar progressive measures would not go before voters again for a decade more.

In 1994, liberal groups proposed a single-payer health insurance system. Prop. 186’s resounding defeat similarly discouraged backers from bringing the issue to voters again.

Schwarzenegger is not the first California governor to tie his political fortunes to ballot measures. He hopes to revive his sagging popularity with key ballot measure wins. But Schwarzenegger could as easily discover the lesson Pete Wilson learned in 1992 through Prop. 165. Wilson, Schwarzenegger’s mentor, sponsored that initiative to slash state welfare payments and give the governor extraordinary new powers over the state budget. Opponents called Wilson’s initiative a power grab and defeated it. That loss marked a dramatic fall in Wilson’s own political clout.

A similar budget powers proposal did not resurface again until this year’s Prop. 76, proposed by Schwarzenegger, who is advised by Wilson’s former aides.

The most profound consequence of an across-the-board “no” vote next month would likely be far fewer battle measures next November. Potential donors would be leery of a negative electorate, and Schwarzenegger might read the results as cause to terminate his 2006 re-election run. With taxpayers coughing up at least $50 million for next month’s extra election, future governors also might see a rejection of Schwarzenegger’s agenda as reason not to invoke special elections in the future.

Many positive results can come from a negative ballot. But voters who just don’t show won’t count as a “no.”
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