Prop 15: A Retort to Sergeant York


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It’s important to dispense right away with misconceptions and falsehoods regarding Proposition 15, the California Fair Elections Act. So I’m going to make a habit of responding to mistaken or misleading comments with new posts, instead of burying my responses in the comment threads.

Our new friend Aaron Park, aka Sergeant York, the rebel ex-Redface blogger, graced us with this comment the other day:

Vern – I find it interesting that the biggest advocates for Prop 15 are those that would benefit.  Publicly financed elections would basically give the media veto power over who gets elected. In Europe they have this system and the government has used it to regulate political speech.  I see this as an attack on free speech – trying to get big money out of politics is impossible. Why not make them list their donors on their websites in real time? That would work really well!

“Courteously expressed,” you might say, “albeit a mashed-up smorgasbord of nonsensical rightwing shibboleths.”  Well, perhaps.  But let’s break it down anyway.  The first sentence is my favorite:

I find it interesting that the biggest advocates for Prop 15 are those that would benefit.

Of course the temptation here is to reply either “Duh!” or “So?” or perhaps “And?”  Why would someone advocate for something that didn’t benefit them somehow?  But let’s resist that temptation, because I want to make the case that election reform (toward which Prop 15 is but a small baby step) will benefit almost all of us, including people and groups who may be opposing it now – not just those who are currently supporting it.

But first, let’s look at these supporters.  Wait, why should we?  Well, we will.  Because there is a limited value in judging a measure or argument by how well you like or trust those advocating it.  Especially if there’s not sufficient time to judge the measure on its own merits, which isn’t the case here.  But there is some value in it, so let’s see.  It’s still early in the game but right now we have…

In support: Common Cause, AARP, the League of Women Voters, the Sierra Club, California Church IMPACT, and the California Nurses Association.  All groups that have regularly fought for expanded democracy;  I await speculation on what material benefit they will derive from a fairly-elected Secretary of State.  [UPDATE:  I just realized what these groups’ self-interest is here:  They survive on donations from members, members such as myself who expect them to fight for reform.  That was easy.  Again, duh.]

And, in opposition:

  • the Police and Firefighters Unions (high-spending, high-powered Public Employee Unions)
  • the “Institute of Governmental Advocates” (natch, that’s the lobbyists’ lobbyists)
  • the California Chamber of Commerce (always tilted toward big business over small businesses)
  • and the Calif. Fair Political Practices Commission and Dept. of Finance (which is confusing as they are Schwarzenegger political appointees, and Arnold enthusiastically signed the bill.)

The first thing I’d point out to a Republican like Sergeant York, for whom Public Employees’ Unions are the bête noire par excellence, is that all the Public Employees’ Unions who have taken a stand on this measure are lining up against it, and I expect more to – the natural foes of election reform are those who have the most power under the status quo:  big corporations, unions, and the two political parties.  (The California Nurses Association is an unusual union that seems to spend the bulk of its time advocating for patients – that’s you and me.)

Let me tell you a little story to illustrate who benefits from Fair Elections.  In 2008 North Carolina instituted the same sort of program for the office of Insurance Commissioner, and Wayne Goodwin managed to win a solid victory while refusing campaign contributions from any special interests.   Within less than a year, Commissioner Goodwin determined that NC auto insurance companies had been illegally jacking up their rates, and managed a refund to NC citizens of $50 million. Who benefited here?  Cui bono? North Carolinians, bro-ham!

The Good Sergeant’s Other Quibbles

Publicly financed elections would basically give the media veto power over who gets elected.

Wouldn’t you agree that the media already does have that power – or that, rather, whoever can pay for and control the most media pretty much controls who wins.  The aim here is to spread that power around to the most citizens rather than those with the most money.

I’m not sure, but maybe you’re coming from the rightwing conspiratorial view that “the media” is some liberal monolith with a mind of its own.  The media is owned by corporations, and sells ad time to whoever can afford it.  Let’s grab it for ourselves.

In Europe they have this system and the government has used it to regulate political speech.

Always these scare stories about how much more terrible things are in Europe than here, but this one is in particular so vague.  Maybe Aaron can get on here and explain what he’s talking about.  Really, we’re discussing a program where lobbyist fees will fund the Secretary of State race.  They have that somewhere in Europe?  Which nation? Or all of Europe?  And how is it used to regulate political speech?

And even if that does happen somewhere in that nightmarish dystopia known as Europe, you may have noticed that in this country we have something called the First Amendment, and we Americans are very picky about it, and our courts are very deferential toward it.

I see this as an attack on free speech – trying to get big money out of politics is impossible.

It’s already been determined by the Supreme Court – perhaps correctly – that limiting the speech of corporations, unions, and public advocacy groups is a restriction of their First Amendment rights.  But this is not the same thing at all.  This is extending Free Speech – giving a megaphone to the rest of us so we’re not drowned out – at most diluting the outsize power of the corporations, unions, and wealthy.  Really, how long must you go to bat for the powerful?  They don’t need you.

And who said anything about “getting big money out of politics?”  We are only trying to get clean money in, to level the playing field!

Why not make them list their donors on their websites in real time? That would work really well!

This one makes me feel like President Obama at the healthcare summit, listening patiently to the Republicans’ ideas.  And they would say, “Tort reform, tort reform, all we need is tort reform!”  And he would nod and say “You know, tort reform is a good idea, and I want to pursue that.  But remember, it will only address at most 1% of the problem.  Now let’s get serious about the billions of waste and the thousands of deaths.”

Just so here.  A great idea, that politicians should have to list all their donors on their websites (so we don’t have to take the extra trouble to go to opensecrets.org or votesmart.org.)  It should be the law.  But seriously dude.  Does your average voter – let alone your average American – have the time or wherewithal, between coming home from work and being bombarded by TV and radio ads, to go and do that kind of research?  You propose a small bandaid on the gaping wound afflicting our democracy.  Let’s get serious!


About Vern Nelson

Greatest pianist/composer in Orange County, and official troubador of both Anaheim and Huntington Beach (the two ends of the Santa Ana Aquifer.) Performs regularly both solo, and with his savage-jazz quintet The Vern Nelson Problem. Reach at vernpnelson@gmail.com, or 714-235-VERN.