Californians are used to ballot initiatives that claim to do one thing, but in reality do exactly the opposite. But even by the standards of misinformation now commonplace in our elections, Proposition 32 — which its supporters call "Stop Special Interest Money Now" — really "takes the giddy biscuit," as P.G. Wodehouse's idle rich buffoon Bertie Wooster (or, for that matter, Mitt Romney) might say.
So what does Prop 32 say it would do and what would it really do? Its supporters claim that Prop 32 — written by the law firm of the California GOP — is a balanced measure that limits corporate and union influence on state elections, to the extent allowed by federal election law.
Indeed, pro-Prop 32 ads focus on spending in Sacramento by AT&T and PG&E, rather than on spending by labor unions. In reality, "Stop Special Interest Money Now" would do nothing of the sort. Though AT&T and PG&E (both unionized firms) are undoubtedly peeved at being singled out, Prop 32 would have almost no impact on the ability of corporate executives to contribute unlimited money to candidates or campaigns, but would have a devastating impact on the ability of unions to participate in state politics. Its restrictions on unions are so sweeping that it would prevent them from communicating with their own members on political issues.
Worse still, Prop 32 would enhance the ability of Super PACs and other wealthy groups that are exempt from the measure to dominate elections. This is not genuine campaign finance reform, but a bill of rights for billionaires, one that would be a game-changer in California politics.
California voters have twice before, in 1998 and 2005, rejected right-wing attempts to destroy labor's political voice. Unable to win by honest means, conservative groups decided to come up with something more deceptive — and more dangerous — this time around.
To appreciate just how deceptive this measure is, one has to understand who supports and opposes it, and why. Prop 32's principal backer, the Lincoln Club of Orange County, co-produced Hillary: The Movie, which was at the heart of Citizens United, the 2010 Supreme Court decision that has led to a flood of special interest spending. The Lincoln Club boasted it was "instrumental" in pushing Citizens United, and celebrated the decision as a victory for political free speech.
In the context of the debate over campaign finance reform, the idea that the Lincoln Club now opposes special-interest spending is the equivalent of believing in the Easter Bunny. Since its founding in 1962, the Lincoln Club has sought consistently to weaken rules that stop Big Money from dominating elections, and Prop 32 would go a long way to achieving that goal.
Other backers of Prop 32 include Orange County anti-union activists and right-wing billionaires (often one and the same), and the usual suspects among Republican activists. And if the polls are tight come November, we will likely see an influx of pro-Prop 32 money from the same 0.1 Percent currently funding conservative Super PACs at the federal level.
Opposed to Prop 32 are the nation's leading good-government groups — Common Cause, the League of Women Voters, and others. Common Cause California has accused the measure's conservative backers of "trying to use our anger and mistrust to change the rules for their own benefit" and of "laughable" deception, while the League of Women Voters says that Prop 32 is "not what it seems, and it will hurt everyday Californians." Sacramento Bee Senior Editor Dan Morain, meanwhile, says the initiative "wears a soiled white hat" and is "dripping with cynicism."
If Prop 32 passes in November, right-wing activists will promote a tsunami of ballot initiatives in 2013 at the local level and in 2014 at the state level designed to drive down working conditions in both the public and private sectors. Lacking the ability to oppose these reactionary measures under the new election rules, California's workers could soon face the weakest labor standards in the country.
So what is the likelihood of Prop 32 winning? If the election were held next month, Prop 32 would almost certainly pass, largely because of its disingenuous framing and advertising. But come November California voters should see through the deception behind the initiative. The labor movement and its progressive allies are much better at defeating measures they oppose than winning measures they support, and if Prop 32 is rejected, this may slow the momentum behind other attempts to increase the corrosive impact of money in politics. Given the misinformation being put out by the Yes campaign, however, it will take a huge effort to defeat it and the election may turn out to be a squeaker.
Let's be perfectly clear: Prop 32 is not a good starting point, nor is it an imperfect but well-meaning effort to limit the influence of special interests in Sacramento. It is a highly deceptive measure that would greatly enhance the political influence of billionaires, Super PACs, and conservative business interests, and undermine the ability of working Californians to have a voice in state elections.
In short, if you liked Citizens United, you'll love Prop 32.