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General Election, Tuesday, 3 November 2020

Each election I research and analyze the propositions on the California ballot to create this voting guide, and they represent nothing other than my own personal view of these measures. I do this analysis on a non-partisan basis, but that doesn't mean I have no opinion. I do, but I believe it's transparent (note that transparency means only that I claim no hidden agenda, not that I'm trying to be unbiased).

I generally have no connection with any group supporting or opposing any of these propositions.

My main intent is to get to the bottom of these issues, knowing that the real purpose is not always evident. Once uncovered, I apply a mainly libertarian eye to them.

I'm more interested in examining the issues thoughtfully than I am in getting you to vote the way I do, so I hope these pages help you understand the issues in front of us.

Educated votes are better votes.

I hope my thoughts are helpful.

Other resources:

Important Note: if you are tempted to say "The hell with it" and just vote "no" on all of them, please do not. An uninformed vote, even a no, may have an unintended consequence that you don't want.

Either educate yourself on the measure, or leave that spot blank. Really. This matters.

Summary of positions

Click each link for the rationale for each position.

Proposition Source Result My Position Description / Title
California icon Prop 14 Initiative Yes 51.0% No Bonds ($5.5B) for Stem Cell Research
California icon Prop 15 Initiative No 48.1% No Repeal Prop 13 for commecial property
California icon Prop 16 Legislature No 43.1% No Re-establishes affirmative action in government/education
California icon Prop 17 Legislature Yes 58.7% Yes Restores right to vote for felons
California icon Prop 18 Legislature No 44.2% No Allows 17 y/o to vote in primaries if the would be 18 y/o by the general
California icon Prop 19 Legislature Yes 51.1% No Changes property tax rules
California icon Prop 20 Initiative No 38.1% No Restrictions on parole, increases penalties for some crimes
California icon Prop 21 Legislature No 40.2% No Rent control
California icon Prop 22 Initiative Yes 58.6% Yes The Lyft/Uber initiative
California icon Prop 23 Initiative No 36.4% No Regulation of Kidney Dialysis clinics
California icon Prop 24 Initiative Yes 56.1% No Consumer Privacy
California icon Prop 25 Referendum No 43.8% Yes Replaces money bail

California icon Prop 14: Bonds for Stem Cell Research

This measure would authorize $5.5B in state bonds for stem-cell research, including training, construction of facilities, and ongoing administration, paid back over 30 years.

Stem cells are those which have not yet determined their specialized purpose in the human body: they might turn into brain or nerve or heart or bone cells, and there can be little doubt that this offers much promise to relieve human suffering, and there's a great deal of research into this area across the globe.

This measure's funds would be used by the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, which was created in 2004 by Proposition 71, to give grants to various entities in the state for research. That proposition included $2.7B in bonds, most of which has been spent by now.

The bulk of Prop71 funds have gone to public entities (mostly those in the University of California system), but also to some non-profit and even for-profit entities. All of them are required to share invention-related income back to the state where it goes into the General Fund and can be used for an purpose.

The ballot pamphlet notes that income from the previous tranche started to arrive in 2017, and to date is around $350k; that's a pretty weak return on investment and does not even remotely live up to the windfalls promised back in 2004.

Supporters claim 92 FDA-approved clinical trials and thousands of "medical discoveries", though it's not clear if this is from the Prop 71 funds, or about stem cells in general, and they very much have their eye on treating conditions inflicted on humans by nature.

Special allocations will be made to focus on brain-related research, including Alzheimers. As I noted in my 2004 analysis, I watched my grandfather fade away from this terrible disease, so I'm completely sympathetic to those wanting to save others from suffering under it.

I suppose that some supporters could be institutions looking for a piece of the action, but I believe most do it in good faith. Surprisingly, they don't once use the disingenuous "does not raise taxes" argument, so a plus for them.

They do touch on "new revenue sources"—presumably from licensing—but evidence suggests this is more wishful thinking than a real prospect. Since 2004 there's been $350k in revenue shared with the state, so it's hard to argue that this is going to be revenue neutral.

Opponents mainly focus on the costs involved over 30 years, and how this is a lousy time to borrow yet more money: we're in the middle of a pandemic, and a tax revenue crash is looming.

There are also claims (by the opponents) of mismanagement of the money, but there are no specifics and I've not read of any scandals, so I assume this is just the ordinary tossing around of money by government in the billion-dollar range where some level of mismanagement is inevitable.

I'm voting no simply for fiscal reasons; we don't have the money.

My Vote: No

California icon Prop 15: Repeal Proposition 13 for commercial property

This measure would essentially repeal the property-tax protections of Proposition 13 for commercial and industrial property by re-assessing the property for tax purposes regularly based on market value, rather than re-assessing only on sale.

Commercial property that was purchased many years ago may have a tax base far below the market value: homeowners have relied on this keep-your-tax-base provision of Prop 13 for years, and (for now) residential and agricultural property would continue to be exempt, as would property owners with total holdings worth less than $3M.

These provisions would be phased in gradually, with smaller businesses phasing in later (2025) than larger owners.

Part of commercial property taxes is based not just own buildings and land, but on physical equipment owned. I'm not sure how this is assessed, maybe somebody walks around counting computers and printers and drill presses, but in any case this measure would exclude the first $500,000 of business equipment from taxation.

I firmly oppose this measure, as well as any other that means to undermine Prop 13; the backers of Prop 15 have been clear that homeowners are next, and I'd like to send them packing.

Minor tidbit first: I believe the business-equipment tax reductions was added only to claim a tax break, and the dollar amounts involved are dwarfed by the land/property portion of this. This is a relatively unimportant part of this measure.

Proponents make the same "pay their fair share" argument that all tax-raisers make, though they do make the interesting point that the portion of property taxes paid by homeowners has risen from 55% to 72%, with the corresponding drop in taxes paid by commercial users.

The drop in overall tax revenues due to commercial owners sitting on decades-old assessments means that school districts have to get more money from the state rather than from the community they are a part of, and this gave me a bit of pause. I'm a big fan of local control, because you have some say in how your local city or county is run, but almost none at the state level.

Proponents also point out that the top 10% of the most valuable commercial property will account for 92% of Prop 15's new revenues. It's easy to imagine the Irvine Company, one of the largest landowners in Orange County, has a metric crap-ton of property (office buildings, shopping centers, etc.) that was assessed when it was built and never since. Their first post-Prop15 tax bill is going to be a doozy.

And though this measure won't directly lead to higher residential taxes, everybody who leases space in an office building or shopping mall is going to feel that pain directly when it rolls downhill.

It does occur to me that the value of commercial property may decline somewhat due to all the remote work going on due to the pandemic we're in the middle of, and even after coronavirus is under control, the work-at-home will continue.

Nevertheless, California has some of the highest taxes in the nation, and this is just going to make it worse.

My Vote: No

California icon Prop 16: Diversity in public employment, education and contracting

This measure would repeal Proposition 209, passed by the voters in 1996, and permit race and other diversity factors to be considered in public employment and education, essentially re-establishing affirmative action.

Proponents argue for diversity and leveling the playing field for those who are disadvantaged, while opponents argue that this is discrimination of a different kind, as well as pointing to potential for shenanigans in public contracting.

I firmly oppose this measure because I believe merit should be the main driver of spending of public money in employment and (especially) contracting, though merit should not be the only factor in higher education. We'll touch on these in turn.

Even if I want to help the disadvantaged—and I do—this measure conflates race with disadvantage, the thing we ought to care about is the latter, and that conflation makes it much harder to do the right thing.

Imagine these two young adults:

Which one is deserving of special help? Under affirmative action, who's going to receive that help?

Initiatives that focus on actual disadvantage independent of race are far more likely to yield results in line with our intentions, and this measure doesn't do that.

And I think I can get through this without resorting to claims of "reverse racism".

Public employment

This is probably the least harmful provision, because there are lots of jobs in the public sector (and it's never been known for a super focus on merit anyway), but hiring anything other than the best people for the job lowers the standards for everybody and attracts those who are more interested in a paycheck than in doing a job.

Now if the focus is on disadvantage, at least it's going to help somebody who may well use it, but it's common enough for reserved spots to go to those we'd probably not consider disadvantaged.

I have no actual data to point to here, so this is little more than a general dislike for preferential policies.

Public contracting

This is much more problematic, because though I'm all for giving people an opportunity, these set-asides are ripe for graft with people setting up businesses not because they are good at that business, but because they are simply angling for a share of the pie allocated to disadvantaged business enterprises.

When I was in college in the early eighties, the department I was in was buying a large computer so put it out to bid. We had serious bids from people who knew the industry and wanted the deal, but plenty of others whose bids were completely dominated with the "minority business enterprise" logos, and it was obvious they didn't want to earn it, they just wanted it.

As it turned out, the company we got it from was a woman-owned business, but we didn't really even know this until later in the process, well after we had been impressed with them on a commercial basis. They got the deal because they earned it, though the college did get the credit for the DBE.

The government has an obligation to spend taxpayer money wisely, and it's hard enough to find a good vendor as it is. I suppose that giving a disadvantaged business a few points in the bid evaluation is not the end of the world, I get concerned with doing-the-job is not the most important criteria.


This is an area of special concern for me, because gaining admission to college via preferential means does not make one academically qualified for that same school, and this can be devastating to those granted this preference.

There can be little doubt that in many poor communities, the primary schools are lousy: run-down facilities, decades-old textbooks, low funding, crime. None of this contributes to a good education, leaving students unprepared for the world they are about to enter. This is completely unfair and shameful.

Nevertheless, there's always going to be that bright student who puts his nose to the grindstone and applies himself, makes the best of a bad situation, and graduates at the top of his class. We applaud this student and want the best for him.

But it's rare that dropping this bright student into an elite school (say, UCLA or Berkeley) leads to success because that lousy primary education simply does not prepare him for four years of academic rigor, especially when competing against students who are prepared.

Students admitted on the basis of academic merit graduate at a rate substantially higher than those admitted on preferential policies, whether that be affirmative action or for "legacies" who got in because their parents were alumni (or if parents paid bribes to their kids in).

Going to a school that's beyond your ability doesn't mean you get a lesser education: it often means you wash out, and if you don't finish college, nobody cares which institution it was.

But if that bright student instead went to a school more matched to their actual abilities—based on actual academic merit— they are far more likely to learn, to thrive, and to graduate.

This mismatch problem is a huge deal, and it has nothing to do with race: it's all about academic qualifications and whether it's a good idea to throw a student into the deep end of the pool without really knowing if they can swim.

A researcher has written:

There are not enough academically-gifted African-American or Hispanic students at the very top tiers to satisfy the demand, and efforts to change that have had a pernicious effect on admissions up and down the academic pecking order, creating a serious credentials gap at every competitive level.

After affirmative action was abandoned, minority students who went to schools more in line with their abilities thrived, failure rates collapsed, and grades improved overall. So did graduation rates.

In spite of good intentions, affirmative action at the college level hurts the very students it means to help, and this is plenty for me to oppose this measure.

My Vote: No

California icon Prop 17: Restores right to vote after incarceration

This measure would restore eligibility to vote to those released from prison but who are still on parole; current law only permits them to vote once the full term of their sentence—jail + parole—has run out.

It's common across the country for those convicted of a felony to lose their right to vote, and in some cases it's permanent: once you've lost it, it's gone. Other states restore the right to vote at completion of the full term of sentence, and California would join other states in restoring the franchise on release from prison but still under supervision.

Proponents argue that re-integrating into life after prison is hard enough as it is, and giving these folks the right to vote helps them be more part of society we want them to fit into. Given that this disproportionally impacts minorities, this is seen as a step towards racial justice.

Opponents are pretty much law-and-order types who argue in all caps "WILL LET RAPISTS VOTE".

I've never had a strong feeling about felony disinfranchisement because pretty much 100% of them volunteered for it, and though I don't take a casual "If you can't do the time, don't do the crime" attitude, I do believe that actions have consequences. But of late have gotten the increasing sense that felony disenfranchisement was created in the first place as a means of voter suppression. I don't like that.

The ballot pamphlet says that around 50,000 people are on parole in California and who would receive the franchise, but I've never had the sense that this was really that big of a deal. If you're trying to get back into society, not being able to vote doesn't seem to me like it would be in the top 10 challenges you face.

Surely we can find those who passionately wish they could vote after prison release (which I would take as sincere), but just how representative is this? How many of the 50,000 would we expect to take the State up on this offer? My gut feeling—based on no data whatsoever—is that these folks would register and vote at a rate far below the general population.

Given the disproportionate representation of minorities in this cohort, I'm guessing that many see this group as tending more Democrat than Republican, and those basing support or opposition on that basis ("we want more Democrats" -vs- "we don't want more Democrats") are not making a principled argument. Nobody has come out and said this, but I watch the news and wasn't born yesterday.

So I'm left with supporters putting forth thoughtful arguments while the opponent are just yelling about murderers and child molesters. That's good enough for me.

My Vote: Yes

California icon Prop 18: Permits some 17 year olds to vote in primary elections

Nationwide, you must generally be at least 18 years old to vote in a Federal election, but some states allow 17 year olds to vote in primary elections if they will be 18 as of the general election.

To my surprise, about half the states allow this in one form or another, and there appears to be a "youth suffrage" movement that calls for the offical voting age to be lowered to 17 or even 16.

This is nuts: children cannot enter into contracts, cannot own real estate, cannot drive or undergo most medical procedures without parental permission. Even something as mundane as ear piercing for minors requires parents to consent and be present during the procedure.

Proponents note that children are impacted by the results of many elections, so why should they not have a voice in decisions about schools, climate change, healthcare, and a host of other things? The answer is: because they are children, and children don't get to make these kinds of decisions. The bond measure for the elementary school surely impacts third graders about as directly as it could: should they get a vote? (hint: no).

Proponents note that seventeen year olds can join the military to fight and die for the country, but they neglect to mention that parental consent is required. Duh.

The cohort of high school students who are eligible to vote in a primary—currently a relatively small number of 18 year olds—will be much larger, and opponents point out that this gives the schools a captive audience to lobby for or against measures the school cares about without even a pretense of a balanced presentation.

I don't have a strong objection to 17 year olds voting for their favorite candidates in the primary where it's just narrowing the field, but for ballot measures these are the final answers.

This is especially important for local school bond measures, where the schools will go on a full-court press to get all the kids to vote for it, supplanting the wishes of those who actually pay the bill. This just feels brazen to me.

Society and the legal system have adopted a bright line at 18 years old, and though there are limited exceptions here and there, this voting should not be one of them.

This is nuts.

My Vote: No

California icon Prop 19: Property tax rules

This measure makes some changes to the rules around when a real estate transaction triggers re-assessment of property values to market value, mostly related to family transfers and for those who've suffered a calamity (wildfire, earthquake, etc.).

All of this revolves around the protections around Prop 13, which limits increases of a home's assessed value for property-tax purposes to something like 2% a year. Somebody who's owned their home for many years likely has an assessed value (that they pay the tax on) far below the home's market value.

When you sell your home, the new buyer resets the assessment to market value, which is almost always leads to a jump in property tax, but some transfers are excluded from re-assessment. These exceptions are hugely important and people take great pains to plan around them.

Those who are 55 or older, are disabled, or have been impacted by a disaster (wildfire, earthquake, etc.), current law allows you to keep your assessment if you buy a new home in the same county and if the home is not more expensive. This measure would expand the exemption to allow moves anywhere in the state, as well as to a more-expensive home. Prop 19 would clearly be a win for this cohort.

Current law also permits some kinds of family transfers, such as from parents to children and (in some circumstances) from grandparents to grandchildren, to avoid re-assessment, keeping a house in the family.

This measure would narrow this exemption by excluding family transfers for property not used as a home or a farm, or if the home/farm property's market value is greater than the assessed value by more than $1M. This would force re-assessment on vacation homes and rental properties on transfer. This would not be a win for these kinds of owners.

Some of the revenue generated from this would go to a fund to deal with wildfires, which certainly seems as good a use as any given the history of the last few years (as I type this, the evacuation zone for the Silverado fire in Orange County is about one mile upwind of me - yikes).

Superficially this appears to be a balance, giving some homeowners a break while removing a break from others, but it seems clear to me that this is an attempt to nibble away at Proposition 13 (much like this ballot's Prop 15 does).

I oppose this measure, though I've rewritten the rationale after learning more about its genesis.

Originally I assumed that the "good" parts were added to sweeten the deal, countering the "bad" parts that raise taxes, but it's the other way around: this measure was put on the ballot at the behest of the Realtors real-tor, not real-uh-tor, who are looking for wealthy older folks to generate commissions on the bigger houses the move into.

How about that: this is completely a special-interest measure that don't give a crap about the elderly or disabled or wildfire victims. I was opposed to this when I thought it was just nibbling away at Prop 13, but it's super easy to double down on a big fat no.

I'll add a note about the radio commercials in favor of Prop 19: they claim they have been "fact-checked, verified, and paid for" by the supporters of the measure, and this seems to be a silly claim that they have fact-checked their own political position.

My Vote: No

California icon Prop 20: Increase crime penalties, parole restrictions, DNA collection

Proposition 20 has several points related to criminal justice, many of them modifying Prop 47 (approved by voters in 2014) and Prop 57 (approved in 2016).

It would increase penalties for some kinds of crimes, either by reclassifying them from "nonviolent" to "violent" either directly by name, or by changing what qualifies for one class or the other (lowering the felony threshhold for shoplifting from $950 to $250, for instance).

It creates two new categories of crime, such as serial theft and organized retail theft, which are pretty much what they sound like.

The measure would require DNA collection of those convincted of some kinds of misdemeanors; current law requires collection from those convicted of or arrested for felonies.

There would be several changes to the parole system that lets convicts out of jail early and onto supervised release.

As noted above, some crimes would be reclassified as "violent", which would make them ineligible for early release, and for others would allow them to apply for release every two years instead of every year.

It would enhance victim-notification during the release considerations: currently, Prop 57 permits victims to register for notification in case their offender is up for release, but Prop 20 would require that victims—including those who didn't ask for it—to be notified as well.

I'm squarely against this measure; it's clearly a "get tough on crime" initiative, and I'm for less incarceration rather than more.

Proponents argue that some crimes are classified as "nonviolent", such as domestic violence or exploding a bomb (!!), and one can always find examples on the border that one could argue should be on the other side. But even crimes that we all agree are bad have aggravating factors that change the whole tenor of the offense.

Example: a single slap to a spouse's face during a heated argument is domestic violence (and should be a crime), but in no sane world is it the same as beating the spouse within an inch of their life in a drunken rage.

The legal system makes these distinctions all the time, and I'm ok with the slap-on-the-face being considered nonviolent because I'm confident that the drunken-rage abuser will absolutely have "violent" attached to their offense. This does not mean I'm ok with slapping people on the face, only that I have a sense of perspective.

Likewise, there's a difference between exploding a bomb to get rid of a former spouse, and playing with explosives out in a field where nobody could get hurt. Both are crimes, but both aren't violent.

The two new categories of theft seem plausible at first, but the legal system already considers habitual-offender status both in prosecution and in sentencing, so I'm not sure this is adding all that much.

And the lowering of the dollar threshold to $250 is pretty much just a reason to put more people in jail.

I've always been nervous about DNA collection and possible abuses by government, but it can also be used to exonerate so this is not a huge turning point for me.

Regarding victim notification provisions, it's been pointed out in this excellent opinion piece that victims who have chosen not to register will nevertheless get sucked back into the process whether they want to or not, and I cannot see any good reason for this other than claiming to be for "victim rights"?

The end result of this measure will be to put more people in jail and to keep them there longer, but in my view will not make us any safer.

My Vote: No

California icon Prop 21: Expands Rent control

This measure would expand the ability of local governments to enact rent control beyond the limits in current state law.

Prop 21 would allow cities to impose rent control on single-family homes or condos, as well as units built more than 15 years ago; current law generally applies only to units built before 1995.

Current law also limits rent increases to the lower of 10%, or inflation + 5% but says nothing about what happens when a new tenant takes over: This measure would permit a landlord to increase rents by up to 15% over three years in this case.

The measure does codify that landlords are entitled to a "fair return" on their investment and in any case does not apply to landlords owning just one or two homes.

Unsurprisingly, proponents are renters and opponents are landlords, but even as a renter myself, I oppose this measure.

There's no doubt that rents are crazy high in many areas—including in my very own Orange County—but that's the inevitable economic result of demand for a thing being higher than the supply for a thing.

Who wouldn't want to live here? And who wouldn't want to pay less?

I'm solidly in the free-market camp so find it easy to oppose this measure on that basis alone, but it's also going to make the housing crisis worse because you cannot repeal the law of supply and demand.

In the short term, of course, rent increases will be limited, but changes the incentive all around, including for current owners and those looking to build.

A trivial example: if I am a landlord with three rental units, it's easy to imagine my selling one unit to a new homeowner to escape the controls, which has the effect of no rent control + reduced rental stock.

Supporters point to the measure's guarantee of a reaonsable profit, but the actual text is pretty vague:

In accordance with California law, a landlord's right to a fair rate of return on a property shall not be abridged by any local charter provision, ordinance, or regulation enacted by a city, county, or a city and county.

It doesn't guarantee any profit, and I think we can all agree that it matters who decides what "fair" means. I suspect this is a throwaway provision that doesn't really mean anything save for a bullet item during a campaign.

In any case, rent control is one of those areas where economic discussions rarely make any difference, because it's all about economic interests rather than economic principles, so the larger mob will likely get its way.

But it's curious that even liberal Gavin Newsome is against this measure, but I don't know if it's because it goes too far, or it doesn't go far enough.

I'm not up for duplicating the 1000 other discussions on the wisdom of rent control and will just leave it with my "no" vote.

My Vote: No

California icon Prop 22: The Lyft/Uber Initiative.

This measure would exempt ride-sharing apps (essentially: Lyft and Uber) from California's AB5 that places restrictions classifying workers as independent contractors instead of employees.

Everybody who's not been living under a rock has heard a radio ad supporting this measure.

This revolves around the difference between an employee, who is subject to minimum-wage laws and numerous workplace protections (sick/leave time, workers' comp insurance, etc.) and for whom the employer is liable for various taxes, and a contractor, who just gets a gross wage with no employment relationship at all.

Independent contractor status is widely abused by businesses trying to escape all those employer-related costs, even in cases where the worker is clearly an employee. Grossly oversimplified, if you tell your worker when to show up, how to do their job, and when they can leave, they're probably an employee.

The rules for classifying one or the other have evolved over time: the IRS has long had a set of tests, and AB5 has made it much more difficult to treat somebody as a non-employee even when it's not obviously abusive (say, a musician who plays gigs where they gets them). This has been hugely controversial, not just for rideshare driver but for other freelancers such as musicians or freelance journalists who sell stories for publication.

Uber/Lyft/Doordash have clearly built their business model on using independent contractors, not just to escape the responsibilities of being an employer, but to dramatically simplify doing business: at the end of a ride, they modem you the money and that's the end of it save for the IRS form 1099-MISC you get at the end of the year.

I have no doubt that there are people who drive fulltime and really do look like employees, and for them I am somewhat sympathetic with making them actual employees, but the AB5 tests don't distinguish them from workers who pick up a few rides here and there for beer money.

I've done consulting in the payroll service bureau business for many years, and the thought of putting all those people on payroll boggles my mind. Not just for whatever additional taxes they'd have to pay, but for the astonishing amount of administrative overhead it would require to service this. And it gets much worse once you have to support multiple states, and especially drivers who cross state lines.

Proponents want you to believe your choice is between whether the drivers are contractor or perhaps more expensive employees, but in practice the real choice will be the current system or no system.

It's not clear that Uber and the like would even offer the service in California at all if forced to an employee model, and that means that *poof*, thousands of drivers are now out of work and I can't get a ride when I want one.

But, thinking out loud, I suppose it could go the other way to some extent:

Casual drivers under so many hours a month would likely be excluded, not being worth the hassle to set up as employees, but if drivers are paid more, it would attract those who want to do this full time, which would create a more professional and stable driver fleet.

But the increased costs are going to have a big impact on the price of rides: I think that Uber and Lift are actually losing money on each ride, being subsidized by investors, and this can't go on forever.

In any case, I believe the longstanding IRS rules used for evaluating worker status have worked well for a long time, and most of these drivers are independent contractors.

So I'm voting yes and will hope for future relief to the other industries hammered by AB5.

My Vote: Yes

California icon Prop 23: Regulation of Kidney Dialysis clinics

This measure would increase regulation of private kidney dialysis clinics, the main point being requiring a physician on staff any time patients are being treated; current regulations require registered nurses only. It also adds some requirements around reporting and non-discrimination based on who is paying for the care.

Opponents are, unsurprisingly, the large dialysis clinic operators who don't wish to incur the added costs of regulation (especially staffing additional medical staff, I'd imagine), and the two large operators have been going all out with radio ads against Prop 23.

You'd think that the proponents would be patients who wish for better care, but that's not it: instead, this measure was put on the ballot by a couple of labor unions who have been unsuccessful in efforts to organize the employees of the large clinic operators and who have taken out their frustration by the initiative process.

Because this is as clear a case as using the ballot box as a weapon as I've seen in a while, I'm solidly against this measure.

I did look for evidence that it's addressing an actual clinical problem, such as a rash of patients with complications that would have been addressed by a physician on staff, but I can't find anything like that.

But none of this is to defend the large operators (DaVita and Fresenius), who have done a remarkable job making themselves unsympathetic. The always-entertaining John Oliver did an excellent report on them some time ago (link to YouTube), and I'm sure many will vote with that unfavorable picture in mind.

Were this addressing real clinical issues, I'd consider it, but in the end this is just a big eff-you by the unions.

My Vote: No

California icon Prop 24: Consumer privacy

Though this measure technically applies to all businesses that operate in California, it's clear this is entirely about the online world, and California is the home to a great deal of that world: Facebook and Google and Apple are all in the San Francisco Bay area.

There are a lot of details here—in 34 pages of actual ballot language—that hurts my head even after a full night's sleep and on my second cup of coffee (I'm typing this at 6AM on Saturday Oct 24), but I'll try to hit the high points.

This proposal would somewhat change the definition of which businesses are subject to these privacy regulations by excluding some smaller businesses who deal with information on less than 100,000 consumers, as well as counting only the consumers, not the number of devices (I routinely use the internet on 3 devices but am only one person).

It also requires businesses to disclose up front what information they collect rather than merely require them to respond to your request, and say in detail it's shared or sold. There is a particular focus on "sensitive" information (which could be used in identity theft), as well as enhanced protections around information about minors.

An interesting comparison of old-vs-new language:

A business that collects a consumer's personal information shall ...
A business that controls the collection of a consumer's personal information shall...

This means that if my big website outsources some aspect of its operations to third parties (which always happens for larger enterprises), these rules still apply to me even though some other site is technically doing the collecting.

Under this measure, consumers would have some rights to ask for what information the business holds about them, to request errors be corrected, or ask that their data be deleted outright, all of which are subject to reasonable limitations.

A consumer could opt out of having their information sold or shared, and there is some strange language here:

Prop 24 would prohibit a company from discriminating against an opting-out consumer by denying access to goods and services or offering different prices or discounts, but—this is the strange part—could offer a different price or discount based on the commercial value of the information shared if the consumer opted in, and it can offer financial incentive for consumers to stay opted in. We'll revisit this later.

It also changes some of the penalties for violations. Current law allows a business to avoid some penalties by fixing violations within 30 days of being notified (mistakes do happen) though not when the violation was for having unreasonably lax security standards (not spending money on good security is not a "mistake").

This measure creates a new California Privacy Protection Agency which would do pretty much what it sounds like, initially funded to the tune of $10M per year and adjusted for inflation.

This was a lot to go through (and my head still hurts), and my feeling is that this measure is about exactly what it says it's about, the backers are true believers, so we can avoid discussions about hidden agenda and deal directly on the merits.

I reluctantly oppose this.

The arguments for Prop 24 are obvious: protect privacy, and I'm very persuaded by the enormous power of the Facebooks of the world, by the huge information asymmetry, and by the shocking labyrinth of enterprises shuffling around consumer information.

But what's also shocking is how expensive it is to run these online enterprises, and that money has to come from somewhere, so the free market (information asymmetry aside) had managed to squeeze amazing value out of the behavior of consumers. To some extent, this is the cost of the internet ecosystem.

Some of the provisions look really good, such as putting the onus on a business for the behavior of third-party enterprises who work in concert to process all this information.

I'm not sure how much good the disclose-up-front requirements will do, because we've all gotten numb to "click here to agree" on 20 pages of legal nonsense, and it won't get better when they're now 40 pages.

One of the more controversial provisions has been what opponents have called "pay for privacy", which I noted with the confusing language above, claiming you shouldn't have to pay to have your information safeguarded: this is regarding a site not being allowed to discriminate against consumers who opt out, but still allowing incentives or discounts for not opting out.

There are different kinds of privacy, and I fear this measure conflates different things under that thing we all want. I can think of four different kinds:

Privacy from information breaches
If a company does not take proper precautions to safeguard information about me, and this information is leaked (or hacked by a bad guy), that's the kind of privacy breach we can all be against.
Companies routinely fail to spend what they should to protect information about their customers, seeing it with limited return on investment. I'm all for creating incentives big enough that it's cheaper to secure your websites properly than it is to get hacked and just say "sorry, our bad".
I'd be in favor of personal liability for company officers for breaches due to gross negligence, such as the Equifax breaches that were completely avoidable after they ignored warnings for months and failed to patch their servers for serious known issues.
Not all breaches are the result of gross negligence, sometimes a well-run shop can still make a mistake, and one can't necessarily expect every commercial enterprise to withstand attacks from state-sponsored groups. If your website has caught the eye of (say) Russian or Iranian governments, it's not clear many would manage to stand firm.
Privacy from making money on your information
Monetization is the backbone of the internet, which is why we have so many ads everywhere, but not all monetization involves sharing of your data with others.
Let's say I start an ad campaign on Facebook where I pay them to put my ad in front of hikers in Orange County California. Facebook uses its own algorithms that include information you provide in your profile, plus information about how you behave, to figure out who is a good target for my ad.
The important part: They do not share this list with me.
Instead, they just put the ad in front of however many I've paid for who fit this demographic profile, and I don't know anything about it other than how many have clicked on the ad. But not their identity, and there's been no privacy violation here at all.
If you actually buy something from my ad, then I'll know you found me from Facebook, but this is because you've intentionally chosen to do business with me. That's not a privacy matter either.
As I type this, however, I could imagine some abuse here. Let's say that I target not based on overt and quasi-public attributes such a "hiker" or "lives in Orange County", but on attributes that Facebook figures out by algorithmic analysis.
In some cases, merely being gay might be very private information to you, but mostly obvious to Facebook based on your interactions, so if they were to allow me to target "gay men in Orange County" with an ad for a very attractive offer unrelated to sexual orientation, all those who took me up on it would not know how I targeted the ad, but I would.
Nevertheless, this feels like an edge case that should not dominate the discussion.
I understand that everybody hates ads, but it's not reasonable to expect others to provide you a free service without them.
Privacy from selling/sharing personal information
This is the part almost everybody hates, made worse because so few of us know how this dark underworld actually works. Most of us don't know who would want to buy private information or what they would do with it. Most of us would probably not like it.
Rather than delve into the details of what this all means, I'll just stipulate that selling/sharing of personal information to others is something 100% of us care about and understand the need for some regulations around.
The key here, in my view, is disclosure and consent: if they describe what they are doing accurately, and I agree in exchange for their service, then that ought to be ok: It's being deceptive that may warrant regulation.

What concerns me about measures like this, and the arguments for and against, is how all the above issues are mixed together and treated the same way, as if Facebook selling my information is the same as Facebook using my information.

But if I tell (say) Google that it cannot use information about me to make money, I'm wanting to have my cake and eat it too. That barstool search mentioned in the sidebar above, though unsettling, was done for me by Google for free, and I got products I wanted at a good price and with very minimal effort on my part. I expect Google got a small cut of the action because it provided me a valuable service that I'm willing to pay for.

The question is: how do we pay for it?

Personally I'd rather use a subscription service where I pay Google (say) $10/month for searches, where I am the customer, and they keep all my information to themselves, but this has been tried before (not by Google) and it didn't work.

I'm uneasy with how much the internet knows about me, and not doubt there's a large amount of abuse here, but in my mind this is just a bit too sweeping, so I'm voting no.

My Vote: No

California icon Prop 25: Abolishes money bail

In 2018, the California legislature passed Senate Bill 10 ("SB10"), that replaced the money bail system with one based around risk assessment. This measure is a referendum, which essentially would allow the voters to veto a law, which is on hold pending the coming election.

If you vote yes, you're approving the law and it will go into effect, and a no vote repeals the law.

But to understand this measure we have to look at SB10 itself, and all of this revolves around the money bail system. I'm going to way oversimplify here.

After arrest for a crime, you can either be released or you can sit in jail, and release can sometimes be based on your promise to appear ("released on your own recognizance" aka "ROR"), if you put up a cash bail amount based on a schedule by the court, with more serious crimes having higher bail, or you can pay a bail bondsman something like 10% of the bail.

The purpose of the bail system is to insure the accused shows up for court and to protect the public if the accused is deemed a danger. Very serious crimes do not allow any bail (so you stay locked up), but the "price list" dependfs on the crime and on other circumstances.

An important point is that bail is never, ever to be used as punishment.

SB10 would remove the money bail system and replace it with a more detailed risk assessment, in part based on computer models, to decide who can be released and who stays in jail. The computer algorithms are at the base of many people's nervousness around this measure.

The money bail system, in practice, devastates poor people arrested for relatively minor crimes when they can't come up with the cash: a family that was just barely getting by now has one member out of a job and out of the picture, and can start a terrible downward family spiral.

Now to the computer algorithms, which consider many factors in making a risk assessment. Many of the major ones we'd all agree with: if somebody has failed to show up in court a bunch of times before, they are a higher risk than somebody who's always shown up. Those with credible evidence of violence to others are probably more risky than crimes that didn't hurt anybody. Younger people are generally higher risk than older folks, something car insurance companies have known for decades.

Creating an assessment algorithm is not a matter of somebody just guessing at factors and points ("if you're younger than 25 years old, you get 10 points", etc.), but instead by what I think you'd call machine learning

The justice system has many years of data on pretrial release, and it's a matter of looking at those who have been released and putting them into groups:

Then one considers many factors of each of them, looking for correlations. It's not because a researcher decided that 24 years old is young and risky, but because the data shows actual higher risk based on age. Likewise with factors such as seriousness of the crime, previous criminal history, plus many other factors. Some factors won't be relevant, while others are too controversial to consider (race, for instance).

Using real data to train an algorithms is done all the time: many self-driving cars are taught this way (show the vision system one hundred pictures of a stop sign, and it will figure out what one looks like), as well as making spam filters better. This is a well established area of research.

For human behavior it does get touchy because everybody is worried that biases will creep in, either explicitly or systemically, and there will certainly be those who call this racial profiling, but a study I read suggested that accused who were released by the computer algorithm were 25% less likely to commit a crime than one released by a judge. This is a big deal to me.

In any case, the algorithms would not have the last word, judges would always have the final say, and I believe this is a reasonable system designed to insure people show up in court and don't hurt anybody in the meantime.

For sure, all of this is about predicting the future, and it's trivial to find examples of a terrible crime commited by somebody out on pretrial release. But the same thing can happen with money bail release.

I was generally for this measure as it was, but I always look to see how it came to be on the ballot, and that sealed it for me: this was put on the ballot by the bail industry, which includes the grimy bail bond office across from the jail and the large insurance companies who back them.

This is a special interest measure pretending to be about fairness and safety, and I oppose that kind of thing.

My Vote: Yes   (which means SB10 goes into law)

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Last updated: Tue Oct 27 19:42:42 UTC 2020