If things weren't bad enough in state politics, now we have Bob Balgenorth, the leader of a state's building trades union -- along with so far unnamed people and organizations too cowardly to reveal themselves -- funding dishonest radio ads to discourage Californians from participating in politics.
That's the message in a new radio ad that says signing initiative petitions puts one at risk of identity theft.
What's so bad about saying that? Three things.
1. There's no evidence of a link between identity theft and signing petitions.
To say that doesn't mean there isn't potential for this and other kinds of fraud in the profession.
Goodness knows we could use smarter rules on circulators -- as well as on-line methods of signature gathering that allow people to have more time to determine what they sign and also provide a better way of verifying signatures.
But even if there were a link between identity theft and signing petitions, this is a terrible road to go down if you care about voter participation.
Why? Well, for one thing, there is a demonstrable link between voter registration and identity theft.
Voter registration records are public, and have been accessed by thieves of all kinds.
But it would still be despicable to have a radio ad discouraging people from registering to vote because of that risk.
We accept some risks, including identity theft risks, as the price of having an open, democratic society.
2. The ad misinforms people on a subject, the initiative process, in which reform and better information is needed.
The problem with California's initiative process is that it's inflexible -- the most inflexible process in the world.
There's precious little room in the process for fixing errors. Initiatives don't have to live within the budget, and they aren't subject to the kinds of checks and hearings as laws. They can't be amended once approved by the voters, without another vote of the people.
All these pieces of the process need fixing.
Unfortunately, legislative Democrats -- and apparently the people behind this ad -- are focusing their energies on adding regulation and restrictions to the process that merely add to the costs of qualifying measures and thus reduce access to the process.
This is backwards.
The process needs to be opened up and made more accessible -- but it also needs to be restricted in ways that integrate it with the rest of the government.
3. It betrays the stated democratic values of labor (and, presumably, other people on the left who are involved in this).
Progressives and labor unions have done better when more people participate in the process.
In fact, right now, labor unions and Democrats have been making a very strong and correct case against the very same argument advanced by this radio ad in another context.
Republicans around the country are stoking fears about ineligible people voting -- which are fears about identity theft -- as a way of passing laws requiring voters to produce all sorts of identification when they vote.
Democrats and their allies have been saying that such laws -- and the stoking of fears -- merely serve to keep people out of the process, particularly poor, minority and immigrant voters who are less likely to participate.
So it's not just despicable to offer a radio ad like this in California.