Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Two cheers for PG&E "Democracy"

By Robin Lakoff

The results of last Tuesday’s primary elections were mixed. But one result gives me hope: the failure of Prop 16, PG&E’s so-called Taxpayers Right to Vote ballot initiative. I am cheered not so much because of what the proposition was about (requiring a vote to municipalize utilities), as because of the way in which it was sold to potential voters. The pro-16 campaign was bankrolled very largely by PG&E, to the tune of $46 million dollars. The no-on-16 side had virtually no money at all ($100,000, to be exact). For a couple of months before the election, TV was blanketed with a single commercial: an attractive (but not too attractive) young (but not too young) woman walking along a rural (but not too rural) road. She stops to tell us that some cities are municipalizing their utilities without giving us, the taxpayers, a chance to vote on it.

The statement is factually correct, and both municipalization itself and letting voters, not cities, decide whether to do it, are complicated decisions. But PG &E’s argument turns cynically deceptive as it morphs into repeated statements to the effect that, without Prop 16, we would “lose the right to vote.” It would require a viewer’s close attention to keep in mind that the only votes involved were about the ownership of public utilities.

Given the way most of us watch TV ads, especially those that are incessantly repeated, it would not be hard for intelligent people to conclude that their literal voting rights were in danger of abolition. When we think about the phrase, “the right to vote,” we normally understand it as inclusive, covering all kinds of voting – not just this one kind. So in its normal and expected sense, the phrase covers the franchise in general.

There is a good deal of research in cognitive psychology that shows that people, particularly when their attention is diverted or they cannot fully see a message, will interpret that message in terms of the normal or expected. If subjects are shown an image going by on a tachistoscope too fast for them to clearly perceive of a circle minus an arc, they will report seeing a complete circle. If they are shown a red ace of clubs, they will report seeing the black ace of clubs. Likewise, if they see an ad repeatedly warning about their loss of “the right to vote,” they may well understand that the American right to vote itself is under threat.

But this deliberate confusion wasn’t the worst problem of the ad. In fact, Prop 16 wasn’t merely about mandating voting for municipalization, but would have required that the vote be by a 2/3 supermajority – making it a virtual impossibility.

The one thing California doesn’t need is another supermajority vote. But the real problem is that this crucial fact about the proposition was never uttered in the spoken message itself. It is mentioned in the tiny, fuzzy print that shows up for a nanosecond at the end, but only the preternaturally sharp-eyed could read it.

To call such a proposition the “Taxpayers Right to Vote Act” is not exactly lying - it is about voting, if only a highly specific form of it – but it does invite prospective voters to draw incorrect conclusions. In so doing, it can fairly be called dishonest.

Most Americans understand “the right to vote” as essentially synonymous with “democracy.” But democracy can only be functional and meaningful if voters have the ability to understand the issues on which they are voting. Deceptive political advertising is therefore the antithesis of democracy; campaigns like that for Prop 16 are designed, intentionally or otherwise, to subvert the democratic process (“the right to vote).” Thus Prop 16, for all its talk about protecting our voting rights, is really about making democracy hollow and meaningless.

So I am glad Prop 16 went down (by a respectable 52.4% to 47.6% margin) because 16 subverts democracy while claiming to support it. I am also glad it failed because of the unevenness of funding available to the two sides. A “right to vote” is significantly eroded if one side can outspend the other by 46 million to 100,000. And with the history of decisions by the Supreme Court giving corporate “persons” like PG&E the right to spend as much as it feels like on campaign advertising (“free speech”), it is unlikely that any law designed to prevent this kind of antidemocratic behavior could pass Supreme Court muster.

An extra fun fact for PG&E and its friends to ponder: the proposition passed in those localities served by PG&E, and failed elsewhere. This is particularly interesting since it means that the eastern part of central California voted like its coastal counterpart — e.g., Fresno voted along with San Francisco. This practically never happens, and should give PG&E pause.

The failure of Prop 16 should serve as a warning to greedy corporations: you can blanket the media in advertising; you can distort and deceive; but you still may not win.  The voters may not be as dumb as you think.