2020 General Election Edition

Cheat Sheet

Welcome back to Mad Props, California voters. We’re proud to be your 100 percent independent guide to California’s ballot initiatives, which, as we explain in our manifesto, come to us by way of a broken system controlled by powerful, wealthy interests — a situation that, unbelievably, gets worse as voting numbers rise here in the Golden State.

There are 12 props on your ballot this time around. We’re convinced that half of ’em have a good shot at improving our lives, thus meriting your YES vote. With no further adieu, here’s how to vote — or you’re part of the problem!

Proposition 14

Stem Cell Research Bonds

You Should Vote: NO

In 2004 — so long ago that Mad Props had not yet been born — Californians passed Prop 71, which authorized bond sales to generate $3 billion for therapeutic stem cell research. It also created the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) to distribute all that money via loans and grants.

Sixteen years later, the CIRM reports that they have nearly exhausted their $3 billion. Various groups that want to keep the party going bring us Prop 71, which would raise another $5.5 billion, again via bond sales.

Our first question is, “What have we gotten for our money?” Prop 71’s proponents point out in a couple different spots on their website that CIRM-funded research has resulted in “over 90 clinical trials and 2,900 published medical discoveries.” (They use those same stats in their “Argument in Favor” in your Voter Information Guide.) But on their “Successes” page, they list only four people whose lives have been changed by these discoveries. You won’t find any list of diseases or disorders that are now curable or treatable thanks to this research. No statistics along the lines of “number of patients cured” or “number of therapies approved.” We’re guessing that the Prop 71 folks are presenting their “successes” the way they are (that is to say: vaguely) because the reality is that stem cell research has not provided the wide-ranging changes in medicine we were all-but-promised back in the early 2000s, when (as some of our readers will remember) the stem cell hype was very, very big.

Our second question is, “Have we paid off 2004’s Prop 71?” The answer is no. Prop 71 came with a 30-year payment plan, so we’re a little over halfway through paying off its $6 billion price tag. (Wait, we pay $6 billion for $3 billion in research funds? That’s right: Remember, paying off bonds is like paying off a mortgage. The interest kills ya.)

Our third question is, “So amidst a pandemic and economic uncertainty the likes of which California has not seen for nearly a century, with their well run dry but only half-paid-for, CIRM and friends want to saddle California with more than $7 billion in new debt?” The answer is yes. That’s the Prop 14 plan.

Our final question is the one we always return to here at Mad Props: “Is it clear that passing this proposition will leave us all better off?” We cannot see a convincing argument that it will. Stem cell research — like all forms of scientific inquiry — is perfectly well and good, but in 2020, it’s hard to countenance this sort of outlay for one specific scientific community. Very sorry, CIRM, this isn’t your year. (There’s a lot of that going around.) Vote no on Prop 14.

Proposition 15

Amend Prop 13 (Part I): Commercial Property

You Should Vote: YES

This is the first of two initiatives on the ballot that would amend 1978’s Prop 13, a proposition so harmful to the Golden State, it inspired your host to create Mad Props, in the hopes that the good people of California might be persuaded to never again shoot themselves in their collective foot so badly.

Prop 13, which limits property taxes in various ways, is not all bad. There is no doubt that it has made it possible for California homeowners to afford staying in their own homes as their property values skyrocketed. But it has also done a tremendous amount of harm, as anyone who has attended California’s public schools since about 1980 can attest. It has absolutely starved our localities of revenue. This year’s Prop 15 is an attempt to undo some of this damage.

Homeowners: It is critical for you to understand that Prop 15 won’t change a thing with respect to the property taxes on your house. The advertisements that have been trying to convince you otherwise since last spring are blatant, outright lies. Period. Prop 15 applies to non-agricultural, commercial properties only. It has protections for small businesses that might otherwise be affected by its changes. So who will be affected?

Mostly big corporations that own a lot of real estate in California. (Proponents hold up Chevron as a good example.) Now. opponents of Prop 15 can’t exactly appeal to voters by saying, “But think of poor Chevron!” So they’re throwing up a couple of tired old arguments that come up every single time we try to raise taxes in this state. An editorial in the Orange County Register makes both these arguments; we’ll take them in turn.

Firstly, “It must never be forgotten that when taxes go up, there are downstream consequences. This measure would raise the cost of living, as grocery stores, retailers and other businesses face higher costs.” To which we respond, oh please. The “you’ll pay more for everything” argument is literally meaningless in the context of a corporate-controlled, lightly-regulated capitalist society, where, as all consumers know, prices never stop going up, because no matter what real costs are, there are always the robber-barons at the top wanting more and more, all the while telling the working class “if you raise taxes, you won’t have nice things.” Joe Biden would call this argument “malarkey,” and he would be right.

Secondly (here’s the OC Reg again): “Proposition 15 does not raise residential property taxes, but if voters signal that Proposition 13 no longer is sacrosanct, it might not be long before tax-hike supporters come after those protections, too.” In other words, “This prop is not the boogeyman, but if you approve it, the boogeyman might come!” But let’s get real: That particular boogeyman is not going to come. Corporations don’t vote, people do — that’s why Prop 15 stands a chance at passage. But again, corporations don’t vote, people do — and that’s why Prop 13’s protections for actual people (in this case, homeowners) are absolutely safe. It is more or less impossible to imagine a circumstance where California voters would vote to remove their own tax protections.

Prop 15 would bring our cities, counties, and school districts somewhere between $6.5 billion and $11.5 billion each year. Homeowners will remain protected, and every Californian will benefit. Vote yes on Prop 15.

Proposition 16

Reinstate Affirmative Action (Repeal Prop 209)

You Should Vote: YES

The nineties were a different time. In 1996, Bill Clinton was finishing up his first term, and preparing to thrash Bob Dole in the election. Fargo won Best Picture and Jagged Little Pill was inescapable. The space shuttles were still flying; Mike Tyson was still fighting. Apple — a company the tech press had declared dead — bought a little company called NeXT and rehired Steve Jobs. Most Americans had yet to experience something called the World Wide Web, which did not yet have a site called Google. And Californians decided that racism was over and done with, so we could outlaw affirmative action. Which we did, with Prop 209.

Prop 209 is a mark of shame every bit as glaring as 2008’s Prop 8, which attempted to ban gay marriage in California. The courts took care of that mistake for us. In this case, we have the chance to right our own wrong.

In 1996, “systemic racism” was not only not a topic of discussion; it wasn’t even a phrase that yet carried any currency in policymaking or in society at-large. In 1996, if you talked about “white supremacy,” many Californians probably assumed you meant those sheet-and-hood-wearing bastards down in the South, not something built-in to our own state’s institutions and communities. To put it in 2020 terms, 1996 was way less woke, y’all. So when a proposition arrived on the ballot that said, “Hey, let’s just treat everyone the same,” 55% of California voters bought the argument without thinking about the fact that “treating everyone the same” really only works if society is not systematically disadvantaging certain people in an ongoing way because of the color of their skin.

In 2007, Chief Justice John Roberts exhibited the same faulty thinking when he concluded his decision in a school integration case with the now-famous statement “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.” That’s easy for a rich white dude to say, and misses at least two critical points: Discrimination persists due to a centuries-long buildup of laws and institutions designed to protect white privilege; and directed, targeted actions designed to counteract the inequalities that are baked-in to the system are not forms of discrimination. They are corrective actions that are essential tools in building a more just and equitable society. Because of Prop 209, the Golden State does not have those tools on its belt.

Prop 16 would give us those tools back by lifting the ban on using race as one of many determining factors in government hiring, contracting, and educational placements. Racial quotas would remain off-limits; those were outlawed by the Supreme Court in 1978, and if you think the current (or impending) Supreme Court would in any way backslide on that, you’re not paying attention to the news much these days.

The people who call systemic racism a myth are people who have never been impacted by it. That’s one of the reasons only nine states ban affirmative action. There is no good reason why California should be one of them. Let’s take that number down to eight. Vote yes on Prop 16.

Proposition 17

Expand Voting Rights (Part I): Paroled Felons

You Should Vote: YES

Californians who have been paroled from state prison following a felony conviction are currently ineligible to vote. Prop 17 would allow these people to vote. It’s as simple as that.

We really can’t see why there should be any fuss about this at all. 17 other states already allow this. (Interestingly, two states — Maine and Vermont — also allow imprisoned felons to vote.) If you’ve served your time, and you’re back out in the world paying taxes and getting screwed by the man like everyone else, you should be able to vote if you’re of a mind to!

We note the main opposition to Prop 17 is an outfit called the Election Integrity Project, which got its start in Nevada in 2006 and now operates in California, Arizona, and Arkansas as well. Their slogan, “Every Lawfully Cast Vote Accurately Counted,” is cleverly chosen — who could argue with that? But spend some time on their amateur-hour website and you’ll find that they don’t like vote-by-mail, they don’t like provisional ballots, and they’re extremely concerned about non-citizens voting. They’re also upset about sanctuary cities, and they trumpet a news story about out-migration in “San Fran.” Their many biases, in other words, are clear to see, and just one of them is that they are not interested in expanding voting rights. On the contrary, they think a serious problem is that too many people are voting. You know, the wrong people.

Oftentimes you can tell how to vote on a proposition by seeing who’s against it. This is one of those times. Let your fellow Californians who’ve served their time cast a ballot. Vote yes on Prop 17.

Proposition 18

Expand Voting Rights (Part II): 17-Year-Olds

You Should Vote: YES

Prop 18 is simple. If it passes, then beginning with the next election cycle, anyone who will be 18 years old at the time of the general election can vote in the primary. In other words, if you’re 17 but you’re gonna be 18 in November, we’ll let ya vote in the primaries in the spring. If you think that seems entirely reasonable and fair, you’re in line with 17 other states (plus D.C.) that already allow this. It is reasonable and fair, and will also encourage some young folks to develop the voting habit — a habit this country needs to nurture.

As with Prop 17, the only opposition here is your cranky friends at the Election Integrity Project. Once again, we encourage you to thumb your nose at those people. Let the kids vote! Vote yes on Prop 18.

Proposition 19

Amend Prop 13 (Part II): Transfers

You Should Vote: NO

In 2018, the California Association of Realtors brought us Prop 5, a shamelessly self-serving measure that Mad Props opposed — and so did the people of California, as it turned out. The C.A.R. is back to give it another go with Prop 19.

Their goal is to get older, wealthier folks to move more often. Now, under current law, such people can transfer their current property tax assessment to a new home of equal or lesser value — this being one of Prop 13’s prized protections for homeowners. Prop 19 would expand this protection. You’d be able to transfer your assessment as many as three times. Anywhere in the state. Even if your new home is of greater value.

If this sounds like a bonanza for established folks who can afford to trade up to a bigger house, you’re absolutely right. It’s a bonanza for the realtors who will effect those real estate transactions, too.

To make this all sweeter to swallow, the C.A.R. has done a couple of crafty things. First, they’ve added a provision to this law by which people who’ve lost their homes to wildfire would also qualify for property tax transfers. Lovely idea! Such a good idea, it should be its own bill. Next? Another provision that would change the way property tax assessment works on real estate that is inherited. Currently, if you inherit real estate, you’re eligible to retain its existing assessment. Under Prop 19, this protection would only be available to you if you move in and make the property your primary residence. This provision would generate some additional revenues — and the measure stipulates that some of those revenues would be devoted to fire prevention. Why was this earmark added? Two reasons: (1) to get the California Professional Firefighters (that’s the firefighters’ union) to support the measure, and (2) so that proponents could emphasize fire prevention (along with transfers for wildfire victims) in the commercials pushing the measure. There’s one pro-19 commercial running right now that might lead one to believe this entire measure is about wildfire policy.

Don’t be misled. This isn’t a wildfire measure at all. It’s a mish-mash designed to placate voters who turned down Prop 5 two years ago. But California voters have learned to “follow the money” — and it’s not exactly hard to grok that realtors stand to make a lot more money in a world where people can buy fancier and fancier homes while their property taxes remain low. That’s the world Prop 19 would create. California voters have rejected the idea before, and should do so again. Vote no on Prop 19.

Proposition 20

Criminal Justice Reform Rollbacks and DNA Collection

You Should Vote: NO

California has been on a bit of a roll reforming its criminal justice system, with some of the biggest changes coming via our initiative system. In 2014, at the urging of both Mad Props and Jay Z, we passed Prop 47, reforming criminal sentencing so that the courts created a lot fewer felons and put fewer people in cages. Two years later Mad Props supported Prop 57, and the people passed it, reducing the prison population further by releasing nonviolent offenders who completed rehabilitation programs.

Cops and prison guards? They hate all this. Hate it, hate it, hate it. The way the wind is blowing (it got stronger this summer, didn’t ya notice?), their prison-industrial complex is threatened. So they want to roll back many of Prop 47 and 57’s reforms with Prop 20.

Prop 20 would also increase the number of crimes for which a conviction would allow the state to sample your DNA. Government DNA databases give us the willies, so this only makes Prop 20 more repugnant. The bottom line is California has been moving in the right direction to dismantle decades of mass incarceration policy, and 2020 is no time for a U-turn on this issue. Vote no on Prop 20.

Proposition 21

Expand Rent Control

You Should Vote: YES

Two years back we considered Prop 10, a rent control measure that Mad Props supported, but which the people rejected. This year’s Prop 21 is a more narrowly-tailored do-over.

At the moment, it’s against the law for localities to enact rent control on buildings built after 1995. Prop 10 would make it possible to impose rent control on any building that is at least 15 years old. It would also allow for limits on how much the rent can be raised when a tenant moves out and another moves in. (Such limits are currently, um, off-limits.)

To be clear, Prop 21 would not automatically impose rent control on anyone. It simply gives some new tools to localities that want to tackle the problem of sky-high rents through regulation. As we argued two years ago, they don’t call it a housing “crisis” for nothing, and it’s high time that certain rent control restrictions enacted before that crisis fade away. The rent is still too damn high! Vote yes on Prop 21.

Proposition 22

Rewrite Employment Law to Help Uber and Lyft

You Should Vote: NO

People who earn money via the app-based “gig economy” are a weird new form of worker — not exactly a contractor, as their relationship with the service they work for is ongoing; but not necessarily an employee either, as they pick and choose their own hours and their own workload. California employment law, however, was until recently woefully behind the times, treating all gig workers, even ones who work more than 40 hours a week, as contractors — and thus unqualified for protections like a minimum wage, or benefits such as health insurance.

In 2018, the state Supreme Court ruled that something was amiss, ordering many gig workers to be reclassified as employees. Sacramento codified the change in law with Assembly Bill 5, which passed last year. The big gig economy companies — most notably Uber, Lyft, and DoorDash — have fought AB 5 tooth and nail in the courts, and crafted Prop 22 to override AB 5 entirely and remake California employment law to suit their interests.

They’ve also spent a record amount of money pushing Prop 22. Wow, these must be super-profitable companies, yeah? Well, not so much — the big gig economy companies have yet to make a profit, and their business models depend not only on eventually replacing drivers with robots (not a joke), but Uber in particular has admitted in its filings with the SEC that its business will never be profitable unless they can also replace public transit. For more on Uber, a company that is definitely in the running for “most evil company in the U.S. today,” read this incredible takedown by the owner of S.F.’s DNA Lounge, who argues convincingly that Uber is a company to be shunned — and, we add, the very last company you want rewriting employment law in your state.

Back to those expensive commercials on your TV every night. They like to trumpet the fact that gig drivers support Prop 22 by a factor of four to one. That statistic, which appears again in your Voter Information Guide, comes from surveys by The Rideshare Guy. He ran one survey last fall which, according to the “Methodology” section of the full report, was sent to 60,000 gig drivers, and got only 947 responses. So even if you assume he contacted every gig driver in the state, the survey only represents about 1.5% of them. The site references a follow-up survey dated last May, sent to 80,000 drivers, with even fewer responses, but has not published the full results or methodology. Draw your own conclusions.

How about other numbers? Well, there’s the CA App-Based Driver Survey, which got responses from a measly 718 drivers last May. If you click their “Survey Methodology” button, you’ll find the following sentence in the fine print: “The research was commissioned by Uber.” Since the survey’s actual questions are not revealed, we can literally only imagine how they might have been constructed to boost certain numbers. And since Uber and Lyft have been making noise for months about leaving California if they cannot have their way, it’s not hard to imagine survey-takers answering under a mistaken belief that their livelihood will vanish if Prop 22 passes. Bottom line: There is no reason at all to believe these driver surveys are credible, or even remotely representative of gig drivers as a whole. We can’t prove it, but we’re guessing a majority of gig drivers are better represented by a recent opinion piece in the New York Times by driver Derrik Baker of San Francisco. His story is worth your time.

Another thing you should know, in case you currently rely on Uber and Lyft to get around: If Prop 22 passes and these companies pack up and leave, there are other rideshare companies waiting to swoop in. They say they have business models that will work under AB 5.

The gig economy contributes mightily to the ongoing underemployment crisis that has bedeviled lower and middle class workers for decades now. California tried to do something about it, but powerful companies that cannot even find their way to profitability want to click “undo” and shaft workers even harder. You can tell them enough is enough. Vote for the dignity of work, vote for workers’ rights, vote no on Prop 22.

Proposition 23

Increased Regulation of Dialysis Clinics

You Should Vote: NO

Two years back, we urged you to reject Prop 8, a misguided attack on dialysis clinics by SEIU-UHW West, a powerful union that has been trying like hell to unionize the state’s two big dialysis chains, DaVita and Fresenius. That hasn’t worked out, so in 2018 the union tried to punish the chains with Prop 8. Californians rejected the idea. Prop 23 is a different episode of the same show, and Californians should tune out.

This time, instead of trying to limit clinic profits, the initiative before us would require dialysis clinics to have an M.D. on the premises while anyone is being treated. If you’re thinking, “Gee, that sounds expensive,” you’re right, and that’s exactly the point. This requirement will hit the clinics where it hurts (the pocketbook) but it’s not at all clear that there would be much of an upside for patients. Look, if Prop 23 were good for dialysis patients, the California Nurses Association (a union themselves, and thus rather pro-union!) would support it — but they decline to. If Prop 23 were based on sound medical policy, every editorial board in the state wouldn’t be against it. But they are.

Prop 23 goes to show that the California initiative process is as vulnerable to misuse by labor unions as it is to misuse by deep-pocketed corporations (see Prop 22) or any other “monied interest.” It’s a pay-to-play game, with voters as the only backstop against treachery — as we were two years ago with Prop 8. Time to do it again: Vote no on Prop 23.

Proposition 24

Alter Consumer Privacy Protections

You Should Vote: NO

Prop 24 is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. It sounds like it will improve your data privacy rights. The truth is that the measure is a problematic mixed bag at best, pushed by a gazillionaire real estate developer from San Francisco named Alastair Mactaggart. Mactaggart fancies himself a privacy expert, though some of his public statements about technology might lead you to wonder if he knows how to spell “www.”

Mactaggart has been at this for some time. When the legislature passed (and Jerry Brown signed) the California Privacy Protection Act in 2018, it was largely in response to Mactaggart’s threats to take this issue directly to the people. The CPPA took effect this year, and has only been enforceable since June. (It’s this very law that has brought you the latest explosion of “Don’t Sell My Data” buttons and popups on websites; doncha love those?) But self-appointed Hall Monitor Mactaggart feels the CPPA isn’t strong enough, so he wants to “strengthen” it via a proposition that amends the state constitution — that way, the legislature can’t undo whatever the people might pass.

The problem is, privacy experts agree that Prop 24 doesn’t really strengthen the CPPA, which itself is a complicated law whose full effects (including unintended side effects) have not yet become entirely clear. Permanently locking in even more complicated changes — some of which smell like giveaways to the companies that collect our data — is both premature and unwise. Just one of those giveaways is a carve-out that allows businesses to charge you extra (via “customer loyalty” programs) if you don’t want your data sold. If that sounds like a privacy law that only a plutocrat could love, you’re getting the idea.

Here’s another problem: Prop 24 would continue a trend of privacy laws that work from an “opt-out” perspective. In other words, under these laws, corporations can track you as long as they provide you with a way to opt out of that tracking (on a company-by-company basis). Privacy advocates argue that true privacy reform would switch us to an “opt-in” model, whereby corporations may not track you unless you grant them explicit permission, thus opting in. That’s the way your grocery store loyalty card works: If you shop at Safeway with cash and never swipe a card, Safeway has no idea how much wine you buy. But they want to know how much wine you buy, so they give you a card with a number on it, and you swipe it when you’re there, and you reap some meager benefit they grant you in exchange for tracking your consumption of wine (and everything else). But in the online world, there’s no concept of a cash purchase, or even an anonymous visit — you get tracked by default. Prop 24 would not change this. That should tell you something about who the law is meant to favor.

If you don’t take our word for it, check out the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s stance on Prop 24. Or Techdirt’s coverage of the ACLU’s opposition to the measure. One way or another, please find a way to join with them, along with Consumer Action, Media Alliance, Color of Change, the Consumer Federation of California, the California Nurses Association, and the League of Women Voters, and vote no on Prop 24.

Proposition 25

Abolish Cash Bail

You Should Vote: YES

Let’s begin with a quote from the Voter Information Guide, since they’ve put things so succintly:

In 2018, the Legislature passed and the Governor signed a law — Senate Bill (SB) 10 — to eliminate bail and change the processes for getting released from jail before trial. This law would have gone into effect on October 1, 2019. However, this did not happen because a referendum on SB 10 qualified for this ballot in January 2019. Under the State Constitution, when a referendum on a new state law qualifies for the ballot, the law goes on hold until voters determine whether to put it in effect.

Our lege passed SB 10 because eliminating cash bail is a very good idea that is in keeping with a whole host of reforms that are necessary to undo decades of mass incarceration policy. So who brought us Prop 25, which seeks to reverse this important reform? Bail bond businesses, that’s who. No, seriously: The reptiles who “help” you navigate the current system if you’re unlucky enough to find yourself in the slammer want to turn back the clock, because they will be put out of business in California unless we all vote to keep them alive.

We are reminded of a splendid quote from Robert Heinlein’s short story, “Life-Line,” published in 1939:

There has grown up in the minds of certain groups in this country the notion that because a man or corporation has made a profit out of the public for a number of years, the government and the courts are charged with the duty of guaranteeing such profit in the future, even in the face of changing circumstances and contrary public interest. This strange doctrine is not supported by statute nor common law. Neither individuals nor corporations have any right to come into court and ask that the clock of history be stopped or turned back, for their private benefit.

If Heinlein were living in California and writing the story today, he might well have added “Nor should the people support such an effort should it come to them in the form of a ballot proposition.” Bail out the bail bondsmen? Are you serious? Hell no! Uphold the legislature’s forward-thinking, reform-minded policymaking, and vote yes on Prop 25.


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Excellent summary and analysis! Thank You!

I count on your analysis of each (always confusing) proposition. They are always well thought out and concise. Thank you for helping me make my decisions.

brilliant and super helpful. i count on you every election.

I always appreciate your research and your thoughts on the sometimes confusing statewide propositions. Your recall of the history of many of these issues is especially valuable. Thank you.

Thanks for the concise summations.

I’m grateful for the clear explanations you shared re: this important election. After reading through the propositions, reading your advice confirmed some of my decisions, and clarified others.

Thank you for cutting through the BS and explaining the issues in a clear way. You saved me hours of research. I appreciate your manifesto about the initiative process and couldn’t agree more.

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