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US Elections: Dot-com vs Dot-org

Just nine days to go to the election and the talking heads shows are getting in a lather. They - along with the writer of a recent NY Times editorial - seem to be outraged that Ralph Nader is not giving up and going away now that the race is as "tight as a tick", as Sam Donaldson said on this morning's "This Week" on ABC. The whole of his interview with Nader was an attack on him for being a spoiler, and Nader just kept on coming back with answers that reinforced the track record he has on the issues and that emphasised the gulf between what Gore says he'll do and what he has done in office. Need I say, Republicans love the Greens.

Nader's sights are set on taking back the democratic process from corporate bodies in an attempt to re-create what he says the Framers of the Constitution had in mind: "a deliberative democracy backed by informed citizens". And this process doesn't just relate to presidential elections. Also on every ballot paper in California, for example, are eight propositions, three of them placed there by the State Legislature and the other five by people who have collected the required number of signatures for their initiative to qualify for inclusion. In fact, by far the greatest proportion of election advertising I've seen has been about these propositions.

America's greatest President, Martin Sheen, appears in commercials during "The West Wing" naysaying Proposition 36 on the state ballot. The measure would replace doing drug jail time with drug rehab time. Warren Beatty appears with defeated Republican primary contender John McCain naysaying Prop 34, which seeks to overturn finance reform provisions approved by California voters in 1996. State governors past and present, Democrat and Republican, urge a yes vote on Prop 39, which would allow local school bonds to be approved by a smaller percentage of the local electorate.

Then there's the local body ballot measures espoused by people as diverse as the blond drag queen in a red suit who flashes a trim ankle and thigh to hail a taxi cab in San Francisco in support of the city's Measure M to increase the number of taxi licences available, and the young homeowners arguing for a measure to limit urban sprawl in the central valley. Not to mention the young homeowners arguing for a measure to allow urban sprawl in the central valley - on the same ballot paper as the measure opposing it.

One prop that's had competing yes/no advertising going for several weeks now is Proposition 38, the school voucher initiative. It was put on the ballot paper by software multi-millionaire and viral marketeer Tim Draper, who reportedly said he's prepared to spend $30 million of his own money to get it passed because it's the most important thing he's ever done. The education system's broken and he's going to fix it with this change. Once it happens here it'll happen all over the country, he reckons. It's hard to see how.

The Constitution of the United States is very clear that individual states should have responsibility for creating their own public school systems (only 7 cents in every dollar spent on education comes from the federal coffers), and the constitutions of only 24 states have provisions to allow some sort of initiative and referendum procedures. Article 2 of the California Constitution defines an initiative as "the power of the electors to propose statutes and amendments to the constitution and to adopt or reject them".

In order to get his initiative on the ballot paper Draper had to collect more than 670,000 signatures on a petition in 150 days, and he paid people to collect them. So far he's spent $18 million on the Yes campaign, and the California Teachers Association has matched that amount for their No campaign. Voters generally seem to feel that the true purpose of initiatives has been subverted by this ability for someone with a lot of money to fund a petition drive that otherwise might not have got the required number of signatures.

So how do citizens in a deliberative democracy become more informed about the implication of measures like this? They turn to the party they're registered with - all of them put out position papers. They read the pros and cons printed in their ballot paper and put out by nonpartisan groups like the League of Women Voters. They attend public meetings where the differing viewpoints are espoused. They turn to their newspapers, many of which will make an editorial board decision about which position to endorse.

And they watch television programs like KQED's "Initiative on Trial", in which the proposition was debated in a courtroom setting - just like on "Judge Judy". So many court TV programmes air here - "Divorce Court", "Moral Court" - that a real courtroom seems just as comfortable and as familiar as a fictional White House now does thanks to "The West Wing." The Yes campaign fielded as its star witness the free-market economist and founder of the school voucher movement Milton Friedman, so that was some pretty heavyweight testimony for the jury to consider.

The jury consisted of a cross-section of the public - from a homeless Vietnam veteran to the former publisher of the "Irish Herald" - and at the end of the trial they retired to consider their verdict. The verdict won't be released until after the election, but the transcript of the show can be found online at www.kqed.org/baywindow after the programme airs on cable TV on October 31. Arguments for and against the proposition are at www.38Yes.com and www.NoonProp38.com respectively. Just try going to www.noonprop38.org and see who got there first.

A tiki tour around the measures on the ballots of other states turns up few surprises. An initiative in Montana seeks to amend state law to prohibit all new "alternative livestock" ranches (game farms). In Nebraska some people want to ban same sex marriage. Some Alaskans want to regulate marijuana like an alcoholic beverage. In Oklahoma there's an initiative to ban cock fighting, and in Arkansas people want to be free of sales and use taxes on used goods and to prohibit the increase of taxes without approval at a general election. On the Maine ballot is Initiative Measure No. 1, to allow a terminally ill adult who is of sound mind to be allowed to ask for and receive a doctor's help to die.

Many of these initiatives, if passed, will have consequences that extend beyond the states in which they are enacted. Some may be deemed unconstitutional by the Supreme Court and be overturned, and if they were popular it could add yet another item to the agenda of things Americans want reviewed about the way their country is governed in a new century. Maybe a clue to the way things will trend in the coming years will be found on November 3, when the results of the high school mock elections being held all over the nation this Thursday are released.

Stay tuned!

Lea Barker
California, Sunday 29 October, PT

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