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Californians have governed themselves for decades using endless lists of citizen-generated referendums known as propositions or ballot measures. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)
Californians have governed themselves for decades using endless lists of citizen-generated referendums known as propositions or ballot measures. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

American Postcards

In California, the presidency takes a back seat during proposition season Add to ...

On the streets of California, you’ll find little to suggest that a presidential election is taking place. In this securely Democratic state, neither major party is bothering to buy any advertising.

Instead, you might come to believe that the entire state has become consumed in some bizarre bingo game involving fresh fruit, car insurance and condoms.

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As you drive along a disreputable stretch of Hollywood Boulevard, for example, you are confronted with an enormous billboard reading “Pornographers Say No On B.” This location, just over the hill from the epicentre of America’s hardcore-porn industry, is plausibly one of the few places in America where pornographers might be considered credible electoral authority figures.

Here democracy is at its most obsessive and specific.

Californians have governed themselves for decades (or, more often, prevented themselves from being governed) using endless lists of citizen-generated referendums known as propositions or ballot measures.

This one, Los Angeles County Ballot Measure B, is properly known as the “Safer Sex in the Adult Film Industry Act,” and is meant to mandate the placement of condoms upon actors in pornographic movies. It is the subject of seemingly endless scrutiny and some of the most prominent and puzzling billboards in the state.

Come November 6, voters here will find it a few pages away, on their voluminous ballot, from other plebiscite questions intended to require labels on genetically modified produce, to banish the death penalty, to reform the auto-insurance system, to outlaw human trafficking, and to reform California’s dysfunctional budget and tax system in numerous and contradictory ways.

While many are frivolous or redundant – human trafficking is already illegal, for instance, and condoms are required on porn actors – Californians rarely laugh.

“Around the nation they may look down on us because of our propositions, but they’re actually very important,” says Ferris Wehbe, a Hollywood restaurant owner whose establishments are surrounded by condom-themed billboards.

California’s deep fiscal troubles are rooted in these ballot measures. The infamous Proposition 13, in 1978, outlawed any increases in property taxes – ever – thus causing California’s schools and roads to become among the worst in the nation, and contributing to the bankruptcy of the state’s government last year. Unfortunately, it is far, far harder to persuade people to vote “yes” on ballot measures to raise taxes (there are at least three on the table this year).

Perhaps as a result, one of the few really thriving economic ventures in California these days is the referendum industry. This year, Californians and their companies have spent $340-million, by one estimate, on official Yes and No campaigns around the 11 statewide propositions, and who knows how much more on scores of local measures.

Some of them are deeply confusing. One of the most ubiquitous billboards in California this season reads “No On 32: It’s Not What It Seems.” The proposition, ostensibly intended to outlaw the influence of “special interest” lobbies on politics, is in fact aimed only at unions, and exempts the corporate lobbyists who created the measure.

Indeed, very little here is what it seems. If you look closely at the fine print at the bottom of that big “Pornographers say No on B” billboard, you’ll realize what’s really going on when you see the words “Paid for by Yes on Proposition B.”

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