Monday, June 7, 2010


We have a primary election here in California today, and we have already completed our mail-in ballots. It reminds me of how simple elections are in the UK. There are local elections, normally every year, largely for members of local councils. National parliamentary elections occur when they are called, and this must take place at least once every five years. Then there are by-elections, caused when a Member of Parliament (MP) dies, is raised to the peerage, or "applies for the Chiltern Hundreds", technically an office of profit under the Crown, which requires leaving Parliament, but actually a fiction allowing for departure without resigning - an action forbidden under the law. (There is an alternative "office of profit", the Manor of Northstead, although I have not heard of anyone taking that route in recent years.)

The British system seems sensible and attractive, by contrast to our system, in which wealthy persons can virtually "buy" public offices. Meg Whitman, the billionaire former eBay CEO, is reported to have spent some $81 million to date, in her quest for the governorship of California. (You might wonder why anyone would want to try to govern our unruly state, but it is believed that Ms. Whitman hopes that her election will enable her to be selected as running mate for Mitt Romney, who is expected to run again for the Presidency in 2012.)

We trumpet our "initiative process" as being very democratic. There are two problems with this process, which allows a vote to enact a law which can only be overturned by another "vote of the people". However, those who propose an initiative can usually find plenty of money in support, from "special interests" and anyone else who thinks they would profit from it. I don't believe I have ever heard of enough money being raised to modify these "initiatives" by a subsequent vote. Often I have found myself voting in favor of an initiative, based on my view of the preponderance of the arguments in favor, but where i have felt that some part of the initiative is misguided.

The late Democratic politician and Speaker of the Assembly, Jess Unruh, aptly remarked that "money is the mother's milk of politics". How true! I suppose that I should be pleased that millions of dollars are being spent on television, radio and print advertising on these "initiatives"; it is, after all, helping us in our slow recovery from our economic downturn. On the other hand, "there must be a better way" for making these decisions.

Since I came to this country some fifty-three years ago, and chose to become an American citizen (while retaining my British citizenship) as soon as feasible, perhaps I should refrain from any criticism of our political system.

I need to mention one more aspect of political life. We are constantly being bombarded on our landline by pitches from candidates and those supporting initiatives. We seldom watch commercial TV these days, so we are spared most of the flurry of political adds, although I can't escape them on the classical music radio station I visit most mornings.

I would prefer the British system, in which a representative of each contending party would ring a doorbell, and ask me how I planned to vote. This form of canvassing enables political workers to try to ensure that their supporters actually go to the polls. I can remember from my time in England that I and my colleagues would give laggards rides to the polls, as time was running out for them to cast their votes. Once the voting in the UK is over, the British leave it to the politicians to make decisions. That system works pretty well in a country which still maintains a free press and other media.

I guess that, instead of griping about our U.S. system, I should give thanks that I don't live in one of the many countries where the right to vote is either a sham or non-existent.