California Initiatives: Watch Out for the Tricksters and the Out of Touch

GELFAND’S WORLD--A few days ago, I wrote about an intriguing idea for a ballot initiative that just barely failed to make the ballot. It was a novel approach taken from a conservative point of view that had the potential to reduce the role of money in state legislative races.

The current Democratic hegemony would oppose such a plan, but had it been passed, it would have been capable of being absorbed into our system of government. Things would have changed, but we would still have a state legislature and a California government. It also would have created a lot of new interest in the election process -- remember how many candidates ran for governor in the election to recall Governor Davis?

And then there is the other side of our initiative system.

This is the class of proposed initiatives that are abusive and corrosive. They seem to be on the ballot for one of two reasons: (1) They are special interest tricks and the authors hope that they will slip through, or (2) They represent the sincere thoughts of a sponsor who is way out of the mainstream.

In either case, the already stressed California voter has to become aware of what I call the pitfall initiatives or (as so many of my fellow Californians are now doing) just vote No on every initiative that you are not knowledgeable about and totally in favor of.

As an example of the abusive ballot measure, let's consider a proposal now out for signatures and referred to by its author Cheriel Jensen as the California Clean Environment Initiative. It was brought to my attention by the rationalist cancer surgeon David Gorski, who wrote of its pitfalls in his website Respectful Insolence. Gorski is particularly concerned about any initiative that would repeal California's rules on required vaccination of school children, as this would do.

In other words, Jensen falls into that group which Gorski and others refer to as antivaccination. These are people who have fallen into the belief, soundly refuted by hard science, that vaccines cause autism and other ailments. Jensen has reason to include the antivaccine section. That's because California passed a law, SB 277, that made it harder for parents to avoid having their children vaccinated for frivolous reasons. The new law has been working pretty well so far, as it has resulted in increased vaccination rates in children entering the school system over the past couple of years.

There are some folks who are dedicated to undoing this advance. They have picketed and protested, but the legislature stood firm and more children are entering school up to date on their measles shots. It has been a substantial public health improvement.

But Jensen is not satisfied with merely fighting public health. She is also opposed to all manner of things she considers toxic -- everything from radio waves to genetically modified foods to chemical additives and herbicides.

And in pursuing the goal of ridding our state from all of her boogeymen, Jensen inserts in her initiative the creation of a new government agency, the California Clean Environment Authority (CCEA). The CCEA would have a board elected by the voters. It would also make use of existing state agencies for its investigations but, in addition, "The California State Legislature shall provide the financial means to achieve a clean, safe, healthy environment through the CCEA."

Jensen also invents a whole new class of legal violations which she refers to as Toxic Trespass. Basically, a toxic trespass occurs anytime your land or air or water are impinged upon by the pollen of genetically modified organisms, by chemicals used in business or agriculture or, so help me, by radio waves. Note that the latter are referred to as "injurious radiation frequencies."

Consider the section on radio, which includes the following:

"Emissions and reception of radio frequencies in the one millimeter to one meter range shall be investigated for health effects and interference with AM and FM radio. Within 3 years, limits on frequencies, power, pulse at certain modulations, cycling and distances to sensitive receptors, shall be scientifically established by CCEA. Set limits shall protect newborns, children and sensitive individuals from sleep disturbance, cancer, ability to concentrate, autism, blood/brain barrier leakage, and hyperactivity. . . ."

Wow. There are a lot of crackpot ideas buried in this brief subparagraph. I would merely point out that the part about limits being "scientifically established" presupposes that there are dangers and that some scientific approach can define the limits -- this in contrast to a lot of real science that has, by and large, demonstrated the safety of most radio frequency emissions. And the CCEA has to make these discoveries and adopt rules within 3 years.

By the way, the frequency range listed here includes the UHF spectrum, so it puts California in the position of trying to regulate everything from cell phones to ham radio to aircraft landing and safety systems to some of the radios used by the police and fire departments. I suspect that it would also apply to a lot of over-the-air television. One might note that regulation of radio emissions belongs to the federal government, as set forth in legislation that goes back to the first half of the twentieth century, but that little fact doesn't seem to have deterred the author of this measure.

The initiative even refers to CCEA authority over anything that would "alter our genetic heritage." This sounds like a wholesale attack on genetically modified foods, but would also encompass much research on, and production of, new kinds of medicines. As one commentator pointed out, the initiative would prohibit the manufacture of human insulin for diabetics. The current system was derived using recombinant DNA technology in order to manufacture the human version of the insulin peptide in order to replace insulin purified from the remains of pigs.

The concern raised by this kind of initiative is that it attempts to appeal to a collection of special interest groups, among them people who oppose fluoridation of water, people who oppose agricultural chemicals, and people who are generally suspicious about most technology. The fact that this proposed initiative would forbid the use of chlorine to purify water supplies is just one additional problem.

Jensen's proposed initiative reminds me of the followers of Lyndon LaRouche. They used to set up card tables around town and try to woo the public by stating some obvious bit of truism. "Are you fed up with Bush yet?" Then, if they could lure you over to the table, you would get the full crazy. In this sense, Jensen's initiative offers us heartwarming support for a clean and healthy environment, after which we get the full blast of nuttiness that would, in effect, take us back to the 1800s.

If you want to read the summary letter and initiative language, you can find them here.  I can tell you that getting through this language is quite a ride.

The problem with Jensen's initiative is that -- should it get on the ballot -- somebody will have to come up with money to educate the public that this proposal is toxic and crazy. At Mother Jones, Kiera Butler began the education process with an article Californians Could Vote to Give Themselves the Measles, subtitled A proposed ballot initiative takes Golden State wackiness to the next level. You can also take a look at the article from Arstechnica, which refers to this measure as a "conspiracy theorist's dream." 

Jensen failed to get a similar initiative on the 2016 ballot. There is reason to hope that she will also fail in 2018.

(Bob Gelfand writes on science, culture, and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at