Proposition 16, cleverly disguised as the Taxpayers' Right to Vote Act, was placed on the state ballot as a constitutional amendment requiring a two-thirds vote to create public power districts or allow local governments to purchase their own renewable power. In other words, it was a way for electric utility behemoth PG&E to further protect its monopoly. PG&E saw such potential for its bottom-line that it spent $45 million to persuade voters to approve the measure. But 52.5 percent of California voters saw through the language and knocked it down.
Similarly, Proposition 17 was framed as an opportunity for auto insurance companies to overturn a state law that prohibits insurance companies from extending "loyalty discounts" to customers even if they switched insurance providers. While Mercury Insurance, which spent nearly $16 million on the measure, claimed this was a way to lower rates for drivers, consumer advocates were successful in making the case that in turn, existing consumer protections would be weakened and insurance companies would be able to charge drivers as much as double premiums for making late payments. Prop. 17 failed, too, with 52.1 percent of voters nixing it.
The success achieved by the underfunded activists at the opposing campaigns -- No on 16 and Stop Prop 17 -- is all the more impressive considering the minuscule amounts of money they spent relative to the corporations that financed the measures. Put simply, the myth-busting worked, even in the face of millions of dollars.
What makes the defeats of Props 16 and 17 especially interesting is that they took place in an election that had an appalling turnout -- about one-third of voters came out -- when corporate money normally has the most sway, says Rick Jacobs, founder and chair of the Courage Campaign, a progressive advocacy group in California with 800,000 active members. "But we saw that people are smart. They looked through the smokescreen these two companies were using and said no," he says.
Jacobs believes the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling certainly affects voters' views of corporate influence in elections. But he also thinks progressive groups worked to get the vote out in effective ways. His own organization produced a Progressive Voter Guide that was passed around by like-minded groups such as CREDO and MoveOn.org, and was downloaded by at least 100,000 people. (For perspective, Prop. 16 trailed by 185,000 votes; Prop. 17 by 156,000.)
"People actually shared information with each other, and tuned out the expensive ads, and said, 'We're going to trust each other,'" Jacobs says. This shows that "with targeted communication to people who actually vote, you can defeat these things."
But this is only the first fight this year. In November, more moneyed interests will once again attempt to make a mockery of the democratic process in California and trample on progressives' goals.
The Courage Campaign is already gearing up its fight against a still-unnamed measure that would indefinitely suspend California's beacon Clean Energy law. To date, at least 15 oil companies have contributed $1.6 million to the effort. The three largest funders -- Valero, Occidental Petroleum and Tesoro -- all rank in the Political Economy Research Institute's list of the top 100 corporate polluters in the country.
There aren't any other major corporate-backed measures on the November ballot yet, but the budget process isn't yet over in Sacramento, and this makes it likely that a slew of unpleasant initiatives may be added later on.
Activists are looking forward to the Tax Cannabis initiative being on the November ballot. There is hope that it will bring out a whole slew of younger, more progressive-minded voters. In fact, many precincts on Tuesday reported disappointed voters who had turned out to vote for the marijuana legalization measure.
The general election on Nov. 2 is now just five months away.