Lost amid the increasingly acrimonious campaign for governor has been a pleasant surprise in this year’s state elections — the relative silence that has surrounded the propositions.
The race between Jerry Brown and Meg Whitman is becoming about as dirty as politics can get. Two recent examples include an ad that shows Whitman’s nose growing like Pinocchio’s to dramatize allegations of lies in her campaign, and the recently leaked comments by someone within the Brown campaign calling Whitman a whore.
The campaigns for and against the propositions on this year’s ballot have been a welcome contrast. The most controversial proposition, Proposition 19, which would legalize the possession and use of marijuana under state law, has yet to generate the kind of loud, aggressive debate that one might have predicted a few months ago.
The benefits of this lack of hostility — beside the airwaves not being flooded with annoying advertisements — can be demonstrated via a comparison with Proposition 8 of 2008, which outlawed same-sex marriage in California.
As anyone who was in the state at the time will remember, Proposition 8 was the subject of an intense campaign in which both sides were increasingly hostile toward the other.
Because of the nature of the campaign, those on the losing side felt slighted when the proposition passed because they were not only morally outraged — and in the case of the gay community, deprived of the right to marry — but also felt the result of the referendum was determined more by politics than the opinion of most Californians.
After the election, many analysts pointed to the success of religious groups that opposed Proposition 8 and the unusually high turnout of African-American voters caused by President Barack Obama’s candidacy as one factor leading to the passage of the proposition.
The vast sums of money that groups such as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints spent to advertise on behalf of Proposition 8 in ways that could easily be perceived as unfair — such as the campaign that linked same-sex marriage to elementary school curriculum — were also instrumental in the proposition’s success.
When this type of political campaign ends, whether it is over a referendum or a candidate for office, because the losing side inevitably feels cheated, the issue continues to linger long after the election. Proposition 8, which was overturned by the California Supreme Court earlier this year, is again a prime example.
By contrast, elections that are free of this style of campaigning tend to be perceived by the public as much fairer. Therefore their outcomes are more highly respected. That is likely to be true of this year’s referenda.
The Californian government should learn this lesson and apply it to policy by banning smear campaigning and putting severe limits on fundraising related to propositions.
Opponents of this type of reform would likely argue that publicity is irreplaceable in making voters aware of the consequences of their ballots. However, California already does an efficient job of educating the public about its choices even in the absence of expensive, complicated or demeaning campaigns from either side.
Registered voters receive an election guide in the mail that provides neat and fair summaries of each bill, as well as the full text of each, and the official campaigns for either side are given a small space in which to make their arguments. Leafing through this pamphlet is usually enough to allow voters to make informed decisions.
In contrast, allowing fundraising to be a major factor in campaigns gives too much power to special interests that can afford to flood television and radio airwaves with advertisements. Smear campaigning often distorts the issue and misinforms the public, skewing election results and creating a disaffected losing side.
Some might argue that the government should go even further and impose similar restrictions on campaigns for official positions.
This, however, would be going too far, because it would give incumbent candidates an unfair advantage, and leave too much room for subjective decisions about what constitutes a smear. Furthermore, such restrictions would have no chance of being passed in Sacramento because of how unpopular they would be with most politicians.
Still, that is no reason not to take sensible action to keep our referendum campaigns as clean and fair as this year’s have been in the future. Doing so would mean that results would mostly reflect the majority’s opinion and the minority would have more reasons to respect electoral outcomes.
Daniel Charnoff is a senior majoring in international relations (global business). His column, “Through the Static,” runs Wednesdays.