There oughta be a contest–or three

California has long been known for its propensity for direct democracy. In addition to initiatives and recalls, state voters now can choose between multiple Assembly and Senate “There Oughta Be a Law” contests.

Last month, freshman Assemblyman Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, announced his first ever “There Oughta Be a Law … or Not” contest. It’s modeled closely on the contest Senator Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, launched in 2001 while he was in the Assembly.

The first tilt surprised Simitian and his staff by pulling in around 100 serious entries. Even more surprising was when three made it into law.
“That really signaled to people that this was for real,” Simitian said. “You could have an idea at the beginning of the year and at the end of the year it would be law for 37 million Californians.”

Senator Tom Harman, R-Costa Mesa, also has launched his own contest, this one limited to sixth to twelfth graders in his district. The deadline for this year’s contest passed on November 30. In the next two weeks, he’ll announce which of around 60 entries will be introduced in the coming legislative session. Harman had a similar contest in 2002 when he was in the Assembly.

The idea goes all the way back to an early 20th century comic strip where the main character would slap himself on the forehead and yell “Tobal!” when confronted with an absurd or unjust situation.

Simitian still runs his contest from the Senate; he said it has topped 250 entries each of the last two years. Since 2001, it has put 10 entries into law, an average of nearly two a year. The kind of suggestions that typically make it through are not the wide-ranging structural changes to government. Instead, they’re issues that have inconvenienced or offended particular individuals but may have escaped widespread notice.

Take the two bills from the Simitian contest that were signed by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger this year. SB 1609, submitted by East Palo Alto community activists Shirley Hochhausen and Shirley Krohn, attempts to protect senior citizens against predatory-lending practices. SB 1610, offered by tow-truck driver Daniel Frederick Leon, legally requires people to pull over for emergency vehicles.

Other successful bills from the contest prohibit putting full credit-card numbers of paper receipts, allowing the donation of expired prescription drugs, requiring bankrupt companies to honor gift certificates, and mandating that people turn their car lights on whenever running their windshield wipers. Huffman said that he hopes to get similar entries for his contest.

“We’ve a lot of laws that have been on the books for 150 years,” Huffman said. “I think we’ll find that there are a lot of people who have run afoul of laws that make no sense to them.”

The “Or Not” section of Huffman’s contest mimics the “This one’s gotta go” portion of the contest that Simitian once offered in 2002. That partially was inspired by a contest entry to force the state government to repeal one law for every two new ones they passed.

However, Simitian’s office said that the “Gotta Go” contest was overwhelmed by interest groups who are laser-focused on repealing particular laws, “as well as people who were “generally pretty sour on government.”

They were particularly inundated by people who want to repeal California’s motorcycle-helmet law. While people can still submit ideas to repeal existing laws, Simitian eventually dropped the “Gotta Go” portion of the contest.
Huffman said he expects to be similarly inundated, but he doesn’t mind.
“I’m sure we’re going to get it from the motorcycle-helmet people and the marijuana people,” he said.

The idea has yet to spread to state legislatures around the country. But Simitian said that a CNN story and an article State Legislatures magazine last year have brought more attention. His office has gotten inquiries from legislators and staff in Delaware, Massachusetts and New York.

Meanwhile, is one of several Web sites pushing the idea.
The site was started by Silicon Valley computer engineer Scott Chacon to bring the open-source software model to politics. Open source refers to a concept of software development where people can modify and contribute to software, allowing best solutions to filter to the top. Chacon was also an early Democratic candidate against Rep. Richard Pombo, the Tracy Republican deposed in a high profile race by Democrat Jerry McNerney in November. works much like Wikipedia, the popular encyclopedia Web site. Visitors can propose bills or suggest changes to other people’s bills. Some of the top ideas on Chacon’s site include raising the minimum wage, lowering the voting age and publishing congress member’s schedules online so constituents can know which lobbyists they have met with.

“I think the letter-writing paradigm of constituent relationship is stale and ineffective and can be significantly improved, and that the Internet offers a fantastic platform on which to build a new one,” Chacon said.
One of Chacon’s next goals is to get politicians interested in his software; he’s already offered it to both Simitian and McNerney, he said.

“I think an important difference between the letter-based TOBAL contest and the online version that I built is the social-networking concept,” Chacon said. “These features make it a living, many-to-many collaboration over time–a conversation about how best to govern ourselves.”

Contact Malcolm Maclachlan at

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