My Votes on the 2020 CA PropositionsOct 10, 2020
For over a hundred years, the state of California has allowed its voters to enact legislation via a direct yes or no vote through its proposition system. This has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move.
In this post, I’ve laid out my votes and justifications for the twelve statewide propositions on this year’s ballot. Before you dive in, there are some things you should keep in mind about the proposition system as a whole:
There are two ways for propositions to get on the ballot. Either the state legislature can hold a vote to put something on the ballot, or a private citizen must gather over 600,000 signatures from registered voters. In practice, the only way to do the latter is to pay people a lot of money to stand on street sidewalks and harangue people passing by, so any proposition on the ballot that was not placed by the state legislature was put there by a group that paid a lot of money to put it in front of your eyes.
Propositions can’t be overturned by the legislature. This is where the California proposition system goes from quixotic to downright harmful. If a proposition is enacted but causes problems down the line, it can be very hard to address those issues in a timely manner. The only way of doing so is to make changes via another proposition, which is a risky and cumbersome process. Many of the ills afflicting the state can be traced back to propositions that were passed decades ago and are all but impossible to repeal.
The proposition numbering system is very confusing. Originally, the propositions on the ballot each year would be numbered 1 to N. Because of the above bullet point, many propositions submitted every year are simply changes to prior propositions, so it became confusing to have discussions about them. (“Wait do you mean 1978’s Prop 13 about property taxes or 2010’s Prop 13 about seismic retrofitting”). Starting in 1982, proposition numbers were no longer reused and continued to increment election after election. By 1998, we started to have triple digit propositions, which everyone agreed was also bad, so now we reset the count to 1 every ten years. It’s a mess.
Got it? OK, without further ado, here are my votes:
- Prop 14: Stem Cell Research ❌
- Prop 15: Property Tax Changes ✅
- Prop 16: Affirmative Action ❌
- Prop 17: Parolee Enfranchisement ✅
- Prop 18: Minor Enfranchisement ✅
- Prop 19: More Property Tax Changes ✅
- Prop 20: Criminal Justice ❌
- Prop 21: Local Rent Control ❌
- Prop 22: Gig Worker Labor Classification ✅
- Prop 23: Dialysis Clinic Regulation ❌
- Prop 24: Consumer Data Privacy ❌
- Prop 25: Ending Cash Bail ✅
Proposition 14: Stem Cell Research ❌
Whatever happened to stem cells? It was one of the defining political and social controversies of the early aughts, and then it just… went away?
In 2001, President Bush prohibited federal funding of most human embryonic stem cell research. In response, California voters passed Proposition 71 in 2004, which legalized stem cell research as a constitutional right and directed $3 billion dollars to the newly formed California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), which in turn funded stem cell studies at universities across the state.
The $3 billion was doled out over the course of the last 16 years and is now mostly gone. Prop 14 renews the fund to the tune of $5.5 billion in general authorization bonds.
In 2004, Prop 71 was a bold culture-war stance, a real “fine, I’ll do it myself” moment. In 2020, Prop 14 is much less salient. In the intervening years, researchers discovered how to generate pluripotent stem cells from adult cells without destroying an embryo (they won a Nobel Prize for this work!), and in 2009 President Obama removed the restrictions that President Bush had imposed.
The argument against Prop 14 is that it costs too much money, and argument for it is that spending money on basic research is beneficial. The fundamental question is whether a marginal dollar in the state’s budget does more good when put to this kind of research instead of wherever else it would have gone. It’s a hard question to answer, so I’ve defaulted to voting no. ↩
Proposition 15: Property Tax Changes ✅
The original sin of California housing politics is Proposition 13. Passed in 1978, it limited how much property taxes could increase over time.
In any sane world, property taxes would be proportional to how valuable the real estate is, and if your home doubled in value from one year to the next, your taxes should double as well. Prop 13 threw that out of the window, and instead capped property tax rises to 2% a year and only allowed a reassessment of value upon sale of the property.
This created warped incentives surrounding home sales: let’s say you’ve lived in San Francisco for decades and you now want to move out of the city into a smaller home because your kids have moved out. Even though you’re living in some of the most valuable real estate in the country, your new, cheaper home may have higher property taxes than your current one, because you purchased it in the sixties. This essentially functions as an implicit tax on moving or selling your property.
As discussed in the introduction, the only way to modify Prop 13 is via more propositions, and as a result, for the last 40 years California voters have been asked to vote on dozens of propositions all trying to fix the various problems Prop 13 caused.
Progressives and YIMBYs dream of repealing the law wholesale, but it’s intensely popular (understandably so!). Prop 15 is the best shot we have: it repeals Prop 13 for commercial properties (any building that’s not a home or a farm).
There are some minor concerns about incentivizing office construction relative to residential housing, but we shouldn’t lose sight of the forest for the trees—anything that takes us closer to repealing Prop 13 is good, and Prop 15 does exactly that. ↩
Proposition 16: Affirmative Action ❌
In 1996, California progressives enshrined the following words in our state’s constitution via Proposition 209:
The state shall not discriminate against, or grant preferential treatment to, any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin in the operation of public employment, public education, or public contracting.
Now, 24 years later, conservatives are fighting to pass Prop 16 to re-legalize state-sponsored discrimination.
Wait. No. I’ve got that backwards. Apparently it’s conservatives who pushed for Prop 209 and it’s so-called progressives who want to pass Prop 16. Weird 🤷.
Of course, it’s all really about the ability to enact affirmative action policies in higher education (and frankly it’s really about a brawl over the admissions policies of UC Berkeley and UCLA). California public universities are currently allowed to consider socioeconomic status, but not race or gender. Prop 16 would change that. ↩
Proposition 17: Parolee Enfranchisement ✅
The state constitution currently prevents people on parole from being able to vote. Prop 17 repeals that provision. There are only around 50,000 people on parole at any given time, and even if this proposition passes only a fraction of them will end up registering, so the impact here is pretty small—but who cares? We should be letting as many people participate in democracy as possible. Voting restrictions are un-American. Vote yes. ↩
Proposition 18: Minor Enfranchisement ✅
This proposition allows 17-year-olds who would be 18 at the time of a general election to vote in the primaries and special elections (which typically take place several months earlier). Again, this probably has negligible impact, but it’s a no-brainer.
Honestly, I think there’s a compelling case to just remove age-restrictions on voting entirely. If a 7-year-old can fill out a ballot independently, I see no reason why it shouldn’t be counted. I’m perfectly serious about this. The arguments that people make to disenfranchise minors—that they’re not educated on the issues, that their parents will sway their votes—are nearly identical to the arguments made against blacks’ and women’s voting rights in the 19th and 20th centuries. ↩
Proposition 19: More Property Tax Changes ✅
Remember the warped incentives created by Prop 13 I mentioned above? Well in 1986, voters passed Proposition 60, which was designed to realign those incentives somewhat. It allowed homeowners over the age of 55 to move once in their life to a new house of equal or lesser value within the same county and keep the same assessed value of their old home when paying taxes on their new home. The idea was that this would remove the disincentive for downsizing introduced by Prop 13.
In the 2018 election, California realtors put Proposition 5 on the ballot, which would have expanded the provisions of Prop 60 in a number of ways. Specifically: homeowners could exercise the provision an unlimited number of times, they would no longer be restricted to move within the same county, and their new home could be more expensive than their old home.
Prop 5 was seen (correctly IMO) as a massive giveaway to wealthy taxpayers and a huge drain on local government budgets and it was soundly defeated. Prop 19 is the realtors’ second attempt, but it includes a big concession.
Currently (and egregiously) Prop 13 applies even if you inherited a property from your parents. This allows a house to pass down from one generation to the next while still keeping the property tax value assessment based on the price paid when the house was first purchased. Prop 19 would kill this, and in doing so would actually raise enough money to offset the costs imposed by the moving provision.
YIMBY and progressive groups lined up squarely against Prop 5 two years ago, but both groups are salivating at the chance to repeal the Prop 13 inheritance loophole, so most have come out in favor of Prop 19. ↩
Proposition 20: Criminal Justice ❌
Prop 20 is a relic of the “War on Crime” era of California and national politics that the public has rightly rejected and begun undoing in the past decade or so. It would allow certain crimes that are currently treated as misdemeanors to sometimes be treated as felonies, make it harder for convicted criminals to get parole, and require DNA collection for people convicted of certain misdemeanors.
Crime is down across the state, our prisons are still over capacity, and our criminal justice system still is not being applied equally across racial lines. There’s no good reason to vote for Prop 20. ↩
Proposition 21: Local Rent Control ❌
I recently finished reading Conor Dougherty’s book Golden Gates: Fighting for Housing in America which covers California’s housing crisis and the rise and early fights of the YIMBY movement. (I highly recommend the book—it’s pretty short!). One of the topics it covers was the 2018 fight over Proposition 10 about rent control.
There’s almost no issue that engenders more controversy in YIMBY circles than rent control. Critics (and among them include economists of all stripes) will argue that rent control distorts the market, favors current residents over immigrants, and papers over the real problem afflicting communities across our state: a shortage of housing stock. Supporters argue that while rent control won’t solve the housing crisis, it is a necessary step to help struggling families, especially in the midst of the pandemic.
For the last 30 years, rent control has been mostly disallowed in California at the state level—a consequence of the famed “Costa-Hawkins” Act, which forbade city governments from enacting rent control on apartment housing built after 1995. Another provision of Costa-Hawkins was that it prohibited vacancy control. Normally when a renter moves out of a rent-controlled apartment, the landlord is free to raise the rent for a new tenant back to the market-rate. Vacancy controls prohibit landlords from doing this and would result in further distortions to the housing market.
In 2018, Prop 10 tried to repeal Costa-Hawkins; progressives uniformly supported the proposition, Republicans were uniformly opposed, and YIMBY groups were deeply split. In the end, the proposition failed to pass.
As of January 1st 2020 though, California does actually have statewide rent control, thanks to David Chiu’s AB 1482. For apartment complexes built more than 15 years ago and not already exempt from Costa-Hawkins, AB 1482 caps rent increases at 5% plus inflation per year.
To get AB 1482 passed, Chiu had to make several compromises with YIMBY legislators and landlord groups. The end result was a pretty sensible law, in line with a similar statewide law passed in Oregon. Some people (Chiu included) think it doesn’t go far enough, and they got enough signatures to put Proposition 10 back on the 2020 ballot as Prop 21.
Prop 21 tramples over the provisions of AB 1482 and essentially allows cities to go wild with rent control ordinances on any apartment complexes built more than 15 years ago. Critically, Prop 21 also repeals the vacancy control ban from Costa-Hawkins, meaning that cities could prevent landlords from charging market rate prices to new tenants.
Some amount of rent control is OK, but giving cities carte blanche control would allow local governments to privilege existing residents over immigrants and further distort California’s broken housing market. We should at least give a chance for AB 1482 to do its work before throwing out Costa-Hawkins entirely. ↩
Proposition 22: Gig Worker Labor Classification ✅
Ah, finally we arrive at Prop 22: the big showdown between app-based services like Uber, Lyft, and DoorDash and the progressive movement. This is probably the most discussed proposition on the ballot this year, and if you’re a Californian, you’ve almost certainly been inundated with ads and mailers asking you to vote yes.
Let’s start with some context: In 2019 Lorena Gonzalez introduced AB 5, and it was quickly signed into law by Governor Newsom. AB 5 lays out the conditions for when a worker can be classified as an employee versus an independent contractor for a company.
All things being equal, companies would like to classify their workers as independent contractors. Independent contractors don’t have to receive a minimum wage, they don’t have to receive workers’ comp, and their employer doesn’t have to pay payroll taxes, social security taxes, or unemployment insurance taxes on their behalf. However, being an employee is not strictly better: independent contractors retain the freedom to set their own hours and can pursue their work as a side hustle.
From the moment AB 5 was introduced, industries (and their workers!) began lobbying state legislators to carve out exceptions for them. At the time of passage, the law exempted real estate agents, insurance agents, doctors, dentists, lawyers, accountants, and hairstylists. A “cleanup bill” was later passed that exempted freelance journalists, musicians, interpreters, translators, photographers, and newspaper cartoonists. (Neither of these lists is exhaustive. See here for a full list.)
As the list of exceptions grows (and indeed it’s not out of the question that the California legislature may exempt more professions), at some point you have to ask if AB 5 was passed as a matter of principle, or if it was targeted specifically at the app-based rideshare and delivery companies that make up the new “gig economy”.
While the legislature won’t be exempting Uber anytime soon, the company isn’t taking this fight lying down. They partnered with Lyft and DoorDash to get enough signatures to put Prop 22 on the ballot, which carves out their own AB 5 exemption for app-based services.
The “Yes on 22” committee claims that app-based drivers overwhelmingly prefer to be classified as independent contractors. The truth is a little more complicated. Some drivers (about half) treat their work for Uber or Lyft as a full-time job, and these individuals are ones who suffer from not being treated as full employees, but other drivers do treat ridesharing as a side-hustle and put a high price on the flexibility offered by the contractor status. If you step into an Uber in the days before the election, I encourage you to talk to your driver about Prop 22! I think you’ll find that there’s a diversity of opinions on this issue.
We should also talk about the much-derided “7/8ths” provision of Prop 22. As I mentioned above, by default, propositions can’t be overturned or modified by the state legislature. This is, in some ways, the whole point of propositions. Some proposition writers—knowing that they can’t anticipate everything the future holds—do allow the legislature to make changes, but usually with some kind of super-majority vote. 2/3rds is common, and is used by Prop 17 and Prop 21 this year. Prop 22 uses 7/8ths.
Even in California, where Democrats have supermajorities in both legislative chambers, it’s virtually impossible to get 7/8ths of lawmakers to agree on anything. Functionally, you should treat Prop 22 the same way you treat Props 15, 16, and 19: something that can’t be overturned except via another proposition down the line.
Here’s how I think about Prop 22: do you think a world with Uber, Lyft, and other app-based services is better or worse than a world without them? There’s no middle ground here. The companies have made it abundantly clear that they can’t operate in an environment where AB 5 is the law of the land. Uber and Lyft have already both threatened to leave California before backing down after an appeals court allowed them to continue classifying drivers as contractors until a trial proceeds.
Ultimately, I think a world with Uber is better than one without. I’m voting yes on Prop 22. ↩
Proposition 23: Dialysis Clinic Regulation ❌
The background here is a massive fight between dialysis companies and the Service Employees International Union United Healthcare Workers West (SEIU UHW West (what a mouthful)). For reasons passing understanding, the SEIU UHW West has decided that the best way to achieve their objectives is via a ballot proposition that imposes new regulations on dialysis clinics.
They already tried once in 2018 with Prop 8; this is their second attempt. Although dialysis companies are no saints, as far as I can tell this proposition is bad on the merits. It would increase costs for patients, while not really providing any needed protections. ↩
Proposition 24: Consumer Data Privacy ❌
In 2018, the California legislature passed the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA), which copied over a number of provisions from Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). The CCPA regulates how companies can use the private data they collect from their customers.
My general view on the CCPA and GDPR is that they’re both well-intentioned, and maybe even beneficial for consumers, but probably have the counter-productive effect of entrenching big tech companies’ dominance at the expense of smaller startups. (Google and Facebook have the cash to throw at engineers and lawyers to make sure that they stay in compliance. Startups (even venture-funded ones) don’t.)
Prop 24 modifies the CCPA but not in any straightforward way. Nobody really seems to know what to make of it (the California Democratic Party declined to endorse Prop 24 one way or the other).
If the legislature wants to make these changes to the CCPA, they’re free to do so. There’s no need to do it via proposition. ↩
Proposition 25: Ending Cash Bail ✅
When cops arrest someone on suspicion of committing a crime, they send them to jail (not prison!) to await trial. We don’t want to needlessly detain people, but we also want to ensure that suspects aren’t able to flee the country before being tried. Enter cash bail: a judge sets an amount of money that must be paid by the subject to get out of jail. After the trial, the defendant gets the money back.
It’s an elegant idea in theory, but in practice it’s rife with problems. In particular, the poor—who are disproportionally likely to be arrested in the first place—don’t have the money to post bail but also can’t afford to miss out on their job while they’re behind bars. This forces them to either visit bail bonds companies, which charge exorbitant interest rates, or plead guilty to avoid trial altogether. It’s a horribly unequal system.
Prop 25 would end the practice altogether and replace it instead with an “algorithm” that determines if someone is a flight-risk. While Democrats should be excited by the prospects of ending cash bail, several progressive groups (including the California NAACP) are wary of replacing it with a potentially-biased algorithm.
Unfortunately, there really isn’t a viable alternative here. Leaving it purely up to the discretion of judges leaves room for even more bias, and the existing system is unjustifiably bad. Risk-assessing algorithms have been tried in other states, and results are fairly positive. ↩
To reiterate: it’s borderline insane that California expects its voters to learn and make informed decisions about these complicated legislative issues. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, just remember that you’re always free to leave any selection blank. If you do want to learn more or read another perspective on the propositions, here are some links:
- Tech Worker Voter Guide
- Cal Matters’ 1 Minute Proposition Videos
- YIMBY Action Endorsements
- Pete Rates the Propositions
- San Jose Mercury News Endorsements
- California Official Voter Information Guide
Thanks to Ray, Kim, and Varun for reading drafts of this.