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Amid pandemic, California ballot measures facing tough sell

Photo illustration of a voter's reminder for the Nov. 3, 2020 general election. (Image: Prostock-studio, via Shutterstock)

Qualifying a proposition for the ballot – much less convincing millions of voters to support it – is always a Herculean task. In the best of times, it requires a near limitless supply of money, talent and luck.

Nobody right now thinks we are in the best of times. Many months now into the COVID-19 pandemic, a lot of people instead feel trapped inside a George Orwell novel.

And with good reason.

This is “the most extraordinary time to try to run a campaign on an initiative that I can imagine.” — Gale Kaufman

Nationally, over 3 million people have been infected with the coronavirus. As of this writing, over 135,000 have died. There are over 324,000 coronavirus cases in California alone, and more than 7,000 dead. California schools closed for months, with re-opening in the fall hardly certain. Businesses have closed, re-opened and then closed again, with almost 8 million new unemployment claims since March. The economy flipped from an estimated $6 billion budget surplus in January to a $54 billion deficit by June. Masks have become commonplace in public, even while retail workers have endured countless public fits of anger and even physical attacks from people who rage at the very idea, somehow convinced this is all a hoax or, at the least, overblown.

And even after all that sacrifice and hardship and death, the virus is still spiking across California, with each day seemingly setting a new record for infections.

All that alone would make any campaign season historically challenging. But we are also already in the midst of a brutally contentious presidential election, fueled by nonstop vitriol from every quarter. Add in a global wave of protests over police brutality against people of color in the wake of the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police in May, and it isn’t hard to see why longtime Sacramento political consultant Gale Kaufman calls this “the most extraordinary time to try to run a campaign on an initiative that I can imagine.”

Ironically, prisoners in local lock-ups have been legally able to vote since 2016.

She and many of her colleagues are nonetheless going to get the chance. Even with the usual legislative maneuvering and signature gathering campaigns interrupted by the pandemic, a dozen measures have qualified for the November ballot: Six constitutional amendments, four changes to statute, one referendum and one bond issue. Four were placed there by lawmakers; the other eight collected enough qualified signatures to make the cut.

Many are issues voters have weighed in on in the not-too-distant past, some multiple times, including stem cells (Prop 14), affirmative action (Prop 16), criminal justice (Props 20 and 25), regulating dialysis centers (Prop 23), consumer privacy (Prop 24), rent control (Prop 21) and property taxes (Props 15 and 19).

There are also two voting rights issues on the ballot. Prop 17 would change the state constitution to allow the restoration of voting rights to Californians serving parole, a measure that would impact 40,000 current in-state parolees, while Prop 18 would make California the 19th state to allow 17-year-olds to vote in primaries as long as they will turn 18 by the next general election. Both are constitutional amendments placed before voters by lawmakers.

Had AB 5 been in place between 2014 and 2019, Uber and Lyft would have paid $413 million just in unemployment insurance.

Voters last addressed felon voting rights in 1974, when they approved allowing them to vote only after they had completed serving both their prison sentence and any subsequent parole time. Ironically, prisoners in local lock-ups have been legally able to vote since 2016.

And then there is Prop 22, the latest skirmish in the ongoing blood feud between rideshare companies Uber and Lyft and Assemblymember Lorena Gonzales, a San Diego Democrat, over her 2019 bill AB 5, which codified a state Supreme Court ruling that made it a lot harder for companies to classify drivers and other so-called gig workers as independent contractors. Uber and Lyft have resisted the law from the beginning, arguing it would lead to job losses for drivers and higher costs for consumers.

It would also put a serious crimp in the company’s bank accounts. An analysis by the UC Berkeley Labor Center released in May indicated that had AB 5 been in place between 2014 and 2019, Uber and Lyft would have paid $413 million just in unemployment insurance.

Voters this time around are probably going to be “very selective” in regard to measures that are asking for money,

The rideshares, along with fellow app-based companies Doordash, Postmates and Instacart, have committed over $110 million and counting to support Prop 22, which would exempt their drivers from AB 5.

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra and the city attorneys for Los Angeles and San Francisco filed suit against Uber and Lyft  in May, arguing the companies continue to misclassify their drivers. The legal wheels are still turning, but the California Public Utilities Commission issued a memo in July that said Uber and Lyft drivers must treat their drivers as employees while the ballot measure and the lawsuit go forward.

Whether voters will be moved on Prop 22 or any of the other 11 measures remains to be seen. Mark Baldassare, president and CEO of the Public Policy Institute of California, says the large number of measures to wade through are likely “not too big of a deal” to voters. He says measures placed on the ballot by lawmakers tend to fare better than citizen’s initiatives, but historically about only a third of all measures pass no matter who put them there.

Prop 15 would require commercial properties worth $3 million or more to be assessed for property taxes at current market value at least every three years.

But with the state’s finances in such a sad state of affairs – and maybe their own as well – voters this time around are probably going to be “very selective” in regard to measures that are asking for money, such as the $5.5 billion Prop 14 is looking for to prop up the state’s stem cell research institute they first endorsed in 2004.

“People are going to approach this ballot with more of a sense of fiscal conservatism than would be typical,” he says. “They’re going to be asking ‘how are we going to pay for this?’ And it’s going to be a lot harder for the proponents of some of these measures to convince voters that these measures will be part of the solution and not part of the problem.”

Sacramento political consultant Tim Rosales – who is not running any of the campaigns this year – says Prop 15, the so-called “split roll” measure, could fall into the same category.

Prop 15 would require commercial properties worth $3 million or more to be assessed for property taxes at current market value at least every three years while leaving residential rates untouched. If approved, it would mark a drastic change to 1978’s landmark Prop 13, which allows all properties – commercial and residential – to be assessed to fair market value only when ownership changes hands. The current proposal is supported mostly by teacher and labor unions, who say it will help the cash-strapped state bring in an additional $12 billion in tax revenue. Taxpayer and business groups firmly oppose it, saying it will irreparably harm California’s business climate and drive job producers out of state.

“That’s one everyone is looking at,” he says. “With so much else for voters to think about, it’s going to be hard for something like that to get through.”

Kaufman, who is running two campaigns – “no” on Prop 22 and “yes” on Prop 25 – doubts the familiar nature of so many of the measures will mean much either. In her experience, voters rarely retain much of any issue’s finer points after an election is over. They care more about how something impacts them right now.

Now, just because people are not partisan doesn’t mean they don’t have an ideology.

She says campaign strategists are also competing for voters’ attention in a way they haven’t had to in recent memory.

“It doesn’t matter what you said six months ago. It doesn’t matter what you said three weeks ago. And it may not matter what you say in three weeks,” she says. “You would think they’d be paying attention, and I think they are, but only to things they care about. Voters are still so immersed in questions of safety and health they don’t have much of a stomach for a political campaign.”

Rosales agrees, saying “COVID-19 is what is most present in people’s minds right now.”

That said, he thinks the changing nature of voters’ party affiliations is an even bigger issue.

“For years being a Dem or a Republican were the two most predictive labels for how someone would vote,” he says. But he adds that losing the label doesn’t mean they have entirely changed how they feel about traditional issues for each of those parties.

“Human contact is one of the things that makes an election real for people.” — Mark Baldassare

“Now, just because people are not partisan doesn’t mean they don’t have an ideology. The problem is that their ideology is all over the place,” he says.

The virus could also wipe out one of a campaign’s most valuable tools – face to face contact.  Whether it is a campaign’s door-to-door efforts or conversations between friends, family and co-workers, human interaction is a staple of getting a message out there. While some of that can be made up online, the often-caustic nature of social media is a poor replacement for personal connections.

“Human contact is one of the things that makes an election real for people,” says Baldassare. “People gather important intelligence from other people in those situations that helps them make their decisions. We know from our polling that door-to-door interactions matter a lot. If voters are confused or feel they don’t have enough information, their default is to vote no.”

There is, of course, the other elephant in the room: President Donald Trump.

Rosales doubts the man many Californians love to hate will be the motivating factor to get out to the polls in November, saying “Voters are going to be motivated by what they believe impacts their life on a daily basis.” 

Kaufman doesn’t see it that way.

“He is definitely a big factor,” she says. “Because he mobilizes people on both sides of the political equation to a degree we’ve rarely seen.”

Even so, she says, “COVID is still the bigger question mark.”


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