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My favorite part of the elections last week was watching the proposition results come in. I love learning where I stand among my fellow Californians on the issues. It’s about as close as we ever get to a state- or city-wide policy discussion.

I’m conflicted about this though, because I’m not a fan of propositions as a concept. A friend of mine quipped on Facebook that voters should vote “no” on all propositions because we’ve elected a governor and legislature. We hired them to create good policies. Why aren’t they doing the job we pay them to do?

While I believe such a protest would be reckless, I agree with the spirit of it. Like Edmund Burke, I love democracy, but I’m leery of a government invented by a mass of people who he called “warm and enthusiastic enthusiasts.”

Being a warm and inexperienced enthusiast myself, I know there are many policy decisions I shouldn’t be making.

I’m particularly enthusiastic about food. I was into Michael Pollan before he was cool, I’ve had a well-documented crush on Jay Porter for years, and I even started making a documentary about cilantro a few years back (I’ll finish it when I retire.). I’m a model Proposition 37 supporter, but I voted against it.

In fact, it’s the proposition that galled me the most this year. Brad Plumer wrote the best explainer I’ve found on 37. Read it to fully understand my opposition to it, but, in short, I thought it’d result in poor policy that would do little to ensure a safer or more environmentally sound food policy.

But what frustrated me most about 37 was that such a flawed policy on such a massively complex topic made its way onto a ballot in the first place.

Friends I’ve spoken with about 37 have presented it as an opportunity to promote food safety, greener agriculture, healthier diets, or just a way to stick it to Monsanto (the idea I find most compelling). None of them could explain how labeling a selection of food products would help any of those things.

While these discussions have been fun, and I’m glad we’re having more discussions about food policy, they showed me how ballot propositions can encourage policy making based on ideology over expertise. That’s not always a bad thing. Indeed, many policies should be informed by our collective ideology or priorities.

Looking at the propositions through this lens, we learned a few things about our priorities as a state.

Many Californians are OK with the death penalty (Proposition 34). Fifty-three percent of voters voted no on 34 to keep the death penalty, despite the fact that the proposition’s supporters spent $7.4 million to pass it, more than 18 times the amount spent to block it. This shocked me.

We’re willing to pay more for better education (Proposition 30). Fifty-four percent of voters are willing to temporarily increase taxes to support education — as long as most of them are paid by the rich.

We agree that human traffickers are terrible (Proposition 35). Eighty-one percent of voters, a majority in every county, thinks we should be harder on human traffickers and sex offenders.

We don’t think people should be locked away for drug possession (Proposition 36). Sixty-nine percent of voters favored reserving our three strikes law for particularly violent criminals.

And a slight majority, 53 percent, of Californians don’t seem to be very concerned about genetically modified foods (Prop. 37).

While these are some curious insights about our priorities, I remain unconvinced that we enacted good policy. What’s more, many of the propositions passed by only a few points – they hardly paint a clear picture of our priorities as a state.

There are better ways for the public to inform policy, and I’m not just talking about placing all our trust in representative democracy. Here are a few:

Enlist the California State Library.

Propositions are an absurdly expensive way to learn what the public thinks about things. The California State Library exists specifically to provide “non-partisan research to the Legislature and the Governor.” They do surveys!

Rigorous research overseen by the California State Library could provide clearer insight into the thoughts an opinions of Californians on myriad topics, year round.

If we learned anything from this year’s presidential election, it’s that analysis of polling data can be spectacularly enlightening. It’s time to apply some Nate Silveresque analysis to surveys already being conducted by the state.

Demand more access to policy makers through social media.

Currently, most politicians use social media to campaign to citizens, while citizens use it to rant at politicians. This dynamic will settle down over time. Politicians are becoming better at governing, and listening, through social media (our very own Todd Gloria is a shining example of this). As they do, citizens with sincere interest and expertise on issues will be able to influence them.

While a ballot proposition can reach many voters – particularly if it shares the ballot with a presidential candidate – most of those voters won’t be experts. Social media enables the experts to seek out the policy makers and vice versa.

Have one party get a supermajority in Sacramento and finally pass some legislation.

We’ll see how that goes.

I’ve heard about California’s ungovernability throughout the entire eight years I’ve been here. I’m very curious to see what a supermajority brings us, but whatever it is, I hope California stops relying on the ballot proposition. It lets us experiment with some interesting policies, but that’s certainly no guarantee of good governance, something we need desperately.

Correction: The author of this letter originally attributed an explainer on Prop. 37 to Ezra Klein. It was actually by Brad Plumer. We regret the error.

Jed Sundwall is a co-founder of Measured Voice, a social media software company based in Hillcrest. You can reach him at:, and

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