Column: The silly season in sunny California

Autumn has finally come to Merced. Last week the temperature was in the high 90s, but today it’s in the 70s. It’s a nice change, and we’ve even had a patter or two of rain. Residents here are quick to tell the Easterner that Merced does have a real autumn with leaves changing color and, indeed, it’s proving to be true. Most of the trees are still quite green, but on my street I have yellow patches, and just enough fallen leaves to crunch through when I walk.

This autumn, of course, there is a big election — and very much so in California. A few weeks ago, I went to a forum hosted by the League of Women Voters to find out about local issues. It was held where the county Board of Supervisors usually meets. It was well run and well attended. The participants were the Democratic and Republican candidates for state Senate and state Assembly. All candidates responded to each question, and had a specific amount of time; the rotation changed continuously, meaning no one was always first. The timer had different colored cards to flash at the speakers, so they knew how much time they had left. They never went over.

What struck me was how orderly and civilized the discussion was. The news focuses on the disorderly, so this was most welcome. The audience listened quietly and attentively; as requested, it did not applaud until the very end. The Democratic candidates happened to be officeholders, one running for a second term in the Assembly and the other, currently an Assembly member, running for state Senate. The Republicans were each business owners; one is the mayor of a nearby town and had run for Assembly in the last election. The Democrats each talked about what they had done and emphasized that they frequently worked in a bipartisan manner. The Republicans mentioned their own collegiality, emphasizing their business experience and its importance for dealing with the state’s budget shortfalls. Some topics were: 1. high-speed rail and its financing. Were the Japanese interest in investing and other resources sufficient, or would this rail system wind up being an expensive albatross? 2. Water, and whether new dams were needed to make sure farmers got their fair share of it. 3. Expansion of University of California, Merced, which everyone favored, with special enthusiasm for the prospect of its developing a medical school in this seriously underserved area. First steps will be taken next year, in collaboration with UC/Davis.

None of the candidates referred to the top of their respective tickets (governor and senator), although at the end each was asked if they supported their ticket. They did.

Now that we are getting closer to Election Day, I have received from the county a 28-page booklet containing a sample ballot, statements from the Democratic and Republican candidates for Congress and the complete text of measures C and D plus arguments in favor and against — all in English and Spanish. These measures both have to do with preserving farmland, and both seek a mechanism for citizen involvement in changes from agricultural to residential zoning. The booklet also includes a means to arrange to vote by mail. I want to see who is in my election district, so I will be going to the polls, but many voters choose the mail route, just because the ballot is so long. They have until Oct. 26 to choose.

I’ve also received a 128-page booklet, in English only, from the state. It lists all state candidates, with statements from each, the text of proposed laws (propositions) along with arguments in favor and against. Voters are expected to do their homework! The propositions can cause mischief, however. This year there are several such amendments. No. 27, for example, eliminates a recently authorized state commission on redistricting and consolidates the authority with elected representatives. It is on a collision course with No. 20, which removes elected representatives from the redistricting process and transfers the authority to a 14-member commission. No. 23, sponsored by out-of-state oil interests, suspends implementation of an air pollution control law until unemployment is down to 8.5 percent or less for a full year. (In October 2008 the state’s unemployment rate was 8.2 percent; it is currently 12.4 percent.)

For me all this is a serious matter. The propositions seem fussy and invasive — why do people elect representatives if they then turn around and second guess them so often? It’s cumbersome and expensive, and also a sign that the legislative process is neither understood nor trusted. Nevertheless, putting propositions to the voter dates back to 1914, and it’s unlikely to change.

For me, this is all very different. It means studying the texts, making a variety of choices and keeping track of them until I have finally cast my vote — only a week away.

Ms. Amussen is a freelance writer and former copy editor at Times/Review Newspapers. E-mail: [email protected].