Movies and Ballot Initiatives - tuesday 2012-10-02 1417 last modified 2012-10-04 0204
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The state of California's got a dangerously powerful system of supplementing its legal system by way of ballot initiatives. Citizens can directly implement new, binding laws during state-wide votes - laws which have the further strength of being immutable by legislative processes apart from subsequent ballot initiatives (though subject to normal checks and balances). I'm not one to argue "the system" works, but leaving legislature to the popular vote seems to open wide the door for disasters, largely because of how the populace tends to evaluate movies.

As Roger Ebert claims in his own self-declared "law": "A movie is not about what it is about. It is about how it is about it." You don't have to love or even know much about subjects like euthanasia, franchised television game shows, or stuttering to love how stories about those subjects are told. The beauty of a film is wrapped up in the story it tells, yes - it must be worth telling - but it physically manifests in the storytelling craft. That's why a dark film about a serial killer with peculiar choices in clothing can win out over a happy tale of a plucky heroine falling for and redeeming a once-monstrous man and his kitchen cabinet.

And that's exactly the problem with ballot initiatives. They are sold to the public as simply as possible, telling one story, and it's on the strength of that story that they're evaluated instead of their legal viability. Law is complex. A ballot initiative can be addressing several subjects at once, and more importantly, a ballot initiative can be written so poorly as a legal text as to cause direct harm to its supposed subject - something the specialized legislative process is meant to protect us from.

I don't write on politics often, but with a surfeit of propositions coming up on November 6, 2012, I'm going to go ahead and highlight a couple that fit this mold. Proposition 35 purports to be about pushing through legislation on increasing penalties for human trafficking that the state government couldn't pass. But it couldn't pass it because there was no money in the budget for it. Nobody is for human trafficking, and nobody in our legislative bodies is evaluating bills based solely on their subject matter. Prop 35 is being championed by a fellow running for political office - so another story he would certainly like told is about his qualifications for said office. That bald faced self-inflation just as certainly doesn't have to be a reason to vote against it. But I'll be voting against it because it does not define its terms clearly enough and makes no accounting for how it will be paid for (which says something less than stellar about his qualifications). This is particularly unfortunate because there is no organized effort to defeat Prop 35, and so we're very likely to be saddled with an unfunded and bad law.

Proposition 37 purports to be about labeling food sales to indicate genetically modified organisms as ingredients. Once again, this seems like it should be a no-brainer. If you don't care about what's in your food, just don't look at the label, and if you do, there it is. Unfortunately, Prop 37 is also poorly written, most notably because it comes prepackaged with loopholes specifically designed for its supporters. If you care about the food you consume in a restaurant, anything with alcohol in it, or anything that fits under the pathetically broad term "organic" - your concerns would be unmet. None of those would require labels. In addition, the language allows anybody to sue any producer for non-compliance at any time, whether they have any evidence or not. I am all for transparency in the supply chain, but Prop 37 is only partly about that, and what little is about that is done poorly. Running against tens of millions of dollars in giant agribusiness money, which is probably an asset, Prop 37 is also unfortunately likely to pass.

I care about defeating slavery and increasing food choice information, but I also care about preventing bad laws that do harm from making it onto the books and complicating our lives. Maybe the next round of ballot initiatives should make strides to domesticate this wild popular authority so we can stop threatening to / actually shoot ourselves in the collective foot every six months. I like that we have it. I don't like that we don't seem to know how to wield it to our benefit.

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