Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
The votes in San Francisco and Boulder—not to mention Houston—show that ballot measures are the wrong way to govern.
Two of the most perilous ballot initiatives in yesterday’s elections didn’t survive the night. In Boulder, Colorado, ballot issues #300 and #301—measures that would have given neighborhoods control over zoning and stifled new development—each failed to reach 40 percent of the vote. These ultra-NIMBY ordinances were amendments to the city’s charter. Had Boulder decided to move in this direction, it would have been difficult to change course in the future.
In San Francisco, Propositions F and I—initiatives that would have imposed severe restrictions on short-term housing rentals (namely Airbnb) and issued a moratorium on new development in the Mission—also failed to gain majorities. Similar to Boulder, had these measures passed in San Francisco, it would have taken still more ballot initiatives to revoke these ordinances in the future.
And in Houston, voters rejected Proposition 1, a measure that would have affirmed and extended the equal-rights status of residents based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Opponents of the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance, however, were able to frame the measure as “No Men in Women’s Bathrooms.” Without segregating bathrooms legally by biological sex, opponents argued, men in Houston would pretend to be women in order to fake their way into ladies’ restrooms and sexually assault women.
Policy referenda are sometimes hailed as the true voice of the people. “Ballot initiatives are sometimes called the ‘safety valve’ of democracy,” wrote Corey D. Cook, a professor of political science at the University of San Francisco, back in 2014 after a different round of ballot measures. “They offer a release for the pent-up pressures in the electorate.”
But looking at the elections in three cities this year, another metaphor comes to mind: the automatic self-destruct button. Popular democracy can be bad for municipal government, and cities run by ballot measures aren’t doing themselves any favors.
Let’s start with Houston
The city royally embarrassed itself! It is already illegal in Houston to enter a restroom with the intent to harass somebody, as The Atlantic’s Russell Berman notes. It’s clearly a crime to sexually assault a victim. It boggles the mind to believe that anyone in Houston could take seriously the idea that the only thing preventing women from rampant public sexual assault is the sign on the bathroom door with a stick-figure wearing a skirt.
Of course, the ordinance was designed to extend legal protections to categories of people who don’t currently enjoy them under federal law—namely, for sexual orientation or gender identity. The Houston Chronicle’s John D. Harden put together a visualization showing where the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance found support and opposition. The results show a stark geographic divide: HERO won voters in inner urban Houston and lost voters in outer suburban Houston.
That’s much what you’d predict if HERO divided people along partisan lines. Consider this: Maybe the results don’t reflect a brewing public-safety crisis centered on women’s restrooms, but instead reveal a political fault-line on the issue of equal-rights for transgender people. If that’s true, then it’s at least promising that the opposition cannot simply run against Prop 1 on diesel-grade hatred of gays, but instead must devise a fear-mongering framework to convince people that Prop 1 is something else. Nevertheless, a majority abusing the minority for silly or misguided reasons is still abuse.
“No one’s rights should be subject to popular vote,” said Houston Mayor Annise Parker. “It is insulting, it is demeaning, and it is just wrong."
In an election off-year, maybe some Houston voters were susceptible to the “No Men In Women’s Bathrooms” campaign. As easy as it was for HERO opponents to spread a false narrative about the ordinance (or give false cover for intolerant voters), it’s just as difficult to disseminate accurate information regarding measures that appear on ballots.
But the San Francisco and Boulder ballots were flawed, too
Proposition F in San Francisco, for example, is an enormously complicated issue crowbarred into an exceedingly simple up-or-down vote. Kim-Mai Cutler, who wrote an excellent piece on the issue for TechCrunch, described it as a “Brobdingnagian [saga] over land-use politics.” San Francisco magazine’s Lamar Anderson fact-checked the campaigns for and against Prop F—for and against Airbnb, essentially—and found that both sides stretched the truth.
Politics as usual, right? Except that ballot measures turn planning decisions into election campaigns. Instead of expertise and data, narrative and emotional appeals (and money!) are brought to bear on complex decisions about technical issues like land-use policies and zoning. These are issues that most voters have little familiarity with. And it’s not their fault. In a representative democracy, voters select leaders whose job it is to familiarize themselves with zoning rules, planning priorities, and other issues and make decisions about them. The system works, when it works.
“But freedom!” some critics might object. Government is slow, whereas direct democracy is speedy and access to information is getting better. Still, the public already has a say in planning decisions: first through the vote, and then through the public-feedback mechanisms that almost always accompany zoning changes. People with strong and considered opinions on policies manage to find ways to influence political outcomes without necessarily reverting to irrevocable ballot-measure decision-making.
Fortunately for Boulder and San Francisco, the planning-by-ballot system averted disaster, if you believe that moratoriums on new construction would only exacerbate the housing affordability issues that these cities face. And on Proposition F, voters made the correct call, according to the San Francisco Chronicle—although there’s nothing in the Airbnb regulations as obscenely crazy as Boulder’s mega-NIMBY option. Rather, the problem with Proposition F was that it appeared on the ballot and not on a planning agenda.
“[T]here is an overriding issue that compels a no vote: The very fact that it is on the ballot and could not be altered or even voided without another public vote,” the Chronicle argues.
The editorial continues, “Ballot-box planning is a bad approach even for a measure that is perfect for the moment. This one is not.”