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Editorial: California’s flawed system of director democracy, and why you’re voting on kidney machines

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“You’ll see kidney machines replaced by rockets and guns – and the public wants what the public gets!” – The Jam, “Going Underground”

At a party a few weekends ago in the Springs, the tipsy conversation turned inevitably toward the Nov. 6 election when someone blithely observed the ludicrousness of Joe Ballotbox setting price limits for kidney dialysis patients.

That’s the gist of Proposition 8, which is asking California voters today to approve the regulation of the “amounts outpatient kidney dialysis clinics charge for dialysis treatments.”

And we know what the typical voter is thinking right now: “At last! I’ve been registered for years, waiting for a chance to steer the direction of dialysis-clinic budgeting. My moment has arrived.”

Or, perhaps they’re thinking more along the lines of the Springs party attendees: “WTF do I know about dialysis pricing, and can someone pass the rose?”

Of course, if those at the party dug a little deeper, they’d find that Prop. 8 isn’t simply about guaranteeing a fair price for a life-saving healthcare service – it’s about unions and corporate profits and clinic staffing and wages, with kidney-disease patients caught in the middle.

Which begs a larger question: Why is a nebulous subject to the average person – yet a life-or-death concern for the state’s approximately 140,000 dialysis patients – being put up for a show of hands by an electorate that will give it about as much thought as their vote on where their softball team gets beer after the game?

But therein lies the brilliance of California’s initiative system – that rare instance of pure direct democracy, in which voters bypass the elected officials we hired to deal with such matters in the first place, and make major decisions for 40 million Californians based on having read a couple of paragraphs in what’s become the Bible of the uninformed voter: the “Information Guide and Sample Ballot.”

On the ballot today, Nov. 6, voters will find 12 state propositions, ranging from the aforementioned dialysis conundrum to proposals about what time of day it should be (Prop. 7’s permanent Daylight Saving Time) and how much work we should expect of ambulance drivers when they’re on a break (Prop. 11).

California’s so-called initiative system is nothing new. It dates back to Oct. 10 of 1911, when Golden State voters approved Proposition 7, granting “initiative and referendum powers to the people of California.” It was an enactment described at the time by the Los Angeles Times as a vote “that thrust from power the Captains of Greed.”

And, unfortunately at times, put it in the hands of the Sergeants of Stupidity. Though not always.

As it happens, the initiative system got off to a promising start when, in 1911, California voters approved 22 out of 23 propositions, among them the right for women to vote and the right to recall public officials – two voting entitlements today considered among the pillars of American suffrage.

Even in the one proposal from 1911 that failed, the voters proved they could be a crafty bunch: A call to “allow transportation companies to give free or discounted passes to public officials” – which sounds like it should have been called the “railroads bribe Assemblymen” bill – stood about as much chance with turn-of-the-20th-century rail commuters as it would today’s diamond-lane delegates.

But with the citizenry emboldened by its newfound legislative power, California’s initiative system quickly, and inevitably, went sideways.

By the next election in 1914, the ballot had swelled to still-record 48 propositions, and special-interest groups had by then realized that initiatives could help them impose their mores on society. Temperance leagues were lobbying people to prohibit the sale of “intoxicating liquor” (Prop. 2) and moralists were trying to outlaw private “acts of lewdness” (Prop. 4).

For every step forward voters took, they’d turn around and take two steps back. For instance, in 1914, they outlawed the poll tax, a regressive levy unfairly burdening the poor, only to come back in 1920 and institute it again – but this time only for immigrants.

The legacy of the initiative system brims with the tyranny of the majority – from the Alien Land Proposition from 1920, which effectively barred Japanese immigrants from purchasing property, to such infamous modern-day propositions as 1994’s Prop. 187, which banned illegal immigrants from access to health care, schools and other social services, and that same year’s Prop. 184, the “three strikes” law, which led to felons receiving life sentences for non-violent offenses.

Time and again, the California voter has jumped at a chance to further disenfranchise the disenfranchised.

The initiative system is now in its 109th election in California – and it’s not going away anytime soon. Since it was instituted by voter initiative, it would have to be repealed by a voter referendum – and, like most people with power, electorates aren’t so easily persuaded to give up their decision-making authority without clear benefit to them.

And given that the average voter has little faith that lawmakers in Sacramento would ever put meaningful reform above special interests and big-money donors, any benefit to scaling back initiatives remains dubious.

And so we’re left with making the decisions about taxes, pot and kidney machines for them.

In much the way dialysis stands in for a functioning kidney, California voters stand in for a functioning legislative body.

But unlike dialysis – if we get it wrong, it’s not our body that stands to lose.

Email Jason at jason.walsh@sonomanews.com.