A Proposition Potluck

The weekend of November 4th, my wife and I will start a political party — and disband it on the very same day. But by then its work will have be done. We invite a group of friends and neighbors over to our house, and ask them to bring their California voter handbooks and a dish of food to share. After we snack, we’ll get down to studying the ballot arguments for the various initiatives put before the voters. Think of it as cramming for a civics course. It’s great fun — more fun, I’d imagine than a superbowl or world cup party because there’s more to engage the mind. We’ve been holding proposition potluck parties for more than 20 years without incident or complaint, and it’s so easy to do I’m going to encourage you to do the same.

First off my apologies to any readers who are not Californians and may not be familiar with the ballot initiative process. Initiatives are proposed laws put directly to a popular vote. Sometimes these initiatives are put on the ballot by the legislature, for instance when voter approval is needed to change the state constitution, or when the lawmakers want the voters to make the decision on some ordinary law governing an issue they consider too hot to handle. At other times groups of voters — activist groups, labor or corporate interests — circulate petitions, gather hundreds of thousands of signatures, and put a draft law or constittutional change directly to the voters.

This is California and here everything is controversial including the initiative process. Commissions have looked into whether or not the ballot process is fair or tlted toward interests that have the money to mount expensive statewide campaigns. I happen to be a fan of the initiative process and think it provides a healthy way to kick the political system in the behind, but fair or not, the process will put a series of important questions before millions of voters — so they need to study up. Here’s how.

Generally speaking we start the meeting to order in the living room. Any kids who happen to have come along scatter through the house to perpetrate whatever mischief is in their youung minds. On short ballots we go through the initiatives in order. On long ballots, when there are hot issues, we sometimes start off with the big issue. Either way my wife reads enough of the legislative analsyst’s description of each measure so that we understand what it’s about. That usually takes 10 minutes or so. People read along in the booklets they get from the state. These summaries are excellent. Clear and not very difficult to read. We discuss issues for 10 or 15 minutes.

By then, after 20 minutes per topic, everyone has pretty much had their say and has started to repeat themselves. I tend to be the one who keeps things moving along and once I sense this point of repetition I prod my wife to move on to the next ballot argument. But she insists on getting a show of hands about who is going to vote how. Some people take their secret ballot seriously. They listen to everything but say little, and keep their decisions to themselves.

But for the most part people have no trouble raising their hands — which often means agreeging to disasagree with the person sitting on the couch next to them. The events take as little as two and as many as four hours.When my wife is feeling ambitious she records the gist of the comments and circulates an email to a larger group of friends to let them know the outcome of the discussion.

As my wife reminded me last night we inherited this idea from our friends, Yvonne and Robin, who held a proposition potluck back in the mid 1980s when we lived in Humboldt County (for non-Californians, this is the extreme north-coastal Redwood region of the state inhabited by loggers, fishers, farmers, hippies, pot-growers, and other malcontents who could not find fulfilment in the more populous metropolitan areas to the south).

Now of course we are older and we’ve moved and our circle of friends and neigbors has changed (although I think Robin will be here for the Nov 4th event) I’ve noticed that there always seems to be enough of the right type of people in the room to add some special insight into whatever issues were being discussed. One year I recall some arcance topic about how often our state transportation department could offer freelance design contracts, and our friend Ruth, the architect, had some crucial bit of industry knowledge as to why this was on the ballot. School funding issues are a perennial favorite and we’ve had a couple of friends who are active in their schools and have spoken persuasively, for or against, various measures.

Never in 20 years have we had a discussion get out of hand. There’s a self-limiting nature to a discussion like this. When the argument gets shrill, people walk away and eat food off the potluck table. It’s been very interesting to observe. Information gets an attentive audience. Passion, beyond a certain point, turns people off.

Not that we don’t have our moments. I recall back in the early 1990s there must have been an initiative related to affirmative action on the ballot beause I remember the disussion. I had then only recently found a job in journalism after hearing umpteen times how newspapers were focused on “diversity” — which, insofar as I could tell meant, “White guys need not apply.” Anyhow, I was full of this sentiment and arguing the classic reverse discrimination argument advanced in the Allan Bakke case back in 1978. I could tell that even in our liberal crowd I had some attention to my “two-wrongs-don’t-make-a-right” argument when my younger son, Aeneas, ran over to me in the presence of everyone and said, “Daddy, daddy, Adam hit me.” Startled by the interruption, I said the first thing that popped into my head: “So hit him back.”

Well, the laughter told me I lost the room but so what. Our friends keep coming back for more of the same and each year we go off to the ballot box with a clear sense of what initiaitives are before us and how we should stand.