Monday, June 04, 2007


When I recently visited the town of Monterey, which lies just over 100 miles south of San Francisco, the town was filled with strange signs saying either "Yes on A" or "No on A". Disappointingly, this wasn't a surrealist campaign concerning that pushy, me-first letter of the alphabet (and, in a town whose name manages to include an "a" sound without need for the letter itself, such militant feelings would perhaps be understandable). Instead, it referred to Proposition A, a local political initiative being put before the voters there today (5 June 2007).

I was quite tickled by these cryptic posters which seemed like a send up of the meaningless slogans politicians love to trot out these days (the Labour and Conservative party website front pages, for example, currently feature the headlines "Join the winning team" and "The future for Britain" - it doesn't really matter which is which). But a bit of asking around and a visit to the Monterey County Elections website revealed that Proposition A - along with its excitingly named siblings B and C - concern the county's Orwellian-sounding General Plan, a set of policies that define the area's long-term planning and land-use policy.

More specifically, Prop A is a vote on whether or not to amend the county's 1982 plan. Prop B, meanwhile, seeks to repeal a new, 2006 plan - the existence of which one would think makes the 1982 version rather redundant, with or without amendment. And Prop C, seemingly ignorant of Prop B's plans, perversely wants to enact the 2006 version. Keeping up at the back? No wonder the posters didn't go into specifics.

It turns out that this confusing tangle is a common occurrence here, thanks to the fact that California - like many US states - lets its citizens create, change or repeal laws without waiting for their legislators to do it for them. The only restriction is that you need to submit a suitably large petition in support of your plan to get it on to ballot papers. At the local county level where I am in San Francisco city, you need just over 10,000 names, while a California state initiative requires 434,000 signatures (the latter may sound like a lot, but it is only about 1.3 per cent of the state's 34 million-strong population - also, bear in mind that a recent petition on the Downing Street website attacking the Government's road pricing plans attracted 1.8 million signatures despite the fact that it had no power to change anything at all).

The relative simplicity of this process means voters here can end up with a bewildering array of choices on election day. In the November 2004 general election, voters in San Francisco not only had to pick candidates for the White House, Senate, House of Representatives and a whole bunch of local offices, but also had to decide whether they supported or opposed no less than 32 separate state-wide and county-level initiatives.

To add to the confusion, many propositions and measures are - like those in Monterey - overlapping or contradictory. For example, one may seek to increase funding to schools by 2.5 per cent, the next may want to increase funding by an additional percentage point or two but make the whole thing performance-related, and a third may seek to increase funding on a sliding scale of 3.25 to 9.5 per cent, with the exact amount to be decided by how far a randomly picked group of parents can throw their children on a TV show created specifically for this purpose ("Do you really want little Jimmy to learn? Then let's see him fly!").

And then an electorate desperate to secure any improved funding for schools might vote in favour of them all - it seems the paradox of choice isn't restricted to supermarkets here.

Incidentally, anyone interested in finding out what happens to the A in Monterey (as well as the B and C, presumably), should be able to find the results via either the local Monterey Herald newspaper, or the official Monterey County website.

Footnote: The townspeople of Monterey also seem to have a peculiar Brit-fetish. The town centre is home to no less than five "British" pubs (the London Bridge, Britannia Arms, Mucky Duck, Crown & Anchor and Bulldog) and one strange little shop selling British goods.Despite doing extensive research (okay, so I looked up Wikipedia) I can't find any good reason for this: Monterey was the California state capital under first Spanish and then Mexican rule, and only became part of the wider United States after the war of independence. In fact, the only vaguely British connections I can find are that Robert Louis Stevenson stayed there for a couple of months in 1879 (hardly notable when John Steinbeck was a Monterey resident for many years) and Francis Drake sailed past the then-townless bay in 1579. Any pointers on the missing transatlantic link gratefully received.

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