Wednesday, March 23, 2005

The Fallacy of the Will of the People

More than two-thirds of the people of California don't care about their state's new stem cell agency or oppose it.

Bad news for this blog and bad news for those who argue that Prop. 71 represents the will of the people.

For those of you who recall that Prop. 71 was approved by 59 percent of voters, the apparent lack of support may come as a surprise. But just as in business, there are numbers and then there are other numbers. Ask Bernie Ebbers, former CEO of WorldCom.

Robert Klein, chairman of the stem cell agency, and others cite the 59 percent figure as a justification for keeping bothersome legislators out of their business. Prop. 71 is the will of the people, they say. What they fail to understand are the real numbers and their significance. Say “aw shucks” to Mr. Ebbers.

Given the recent controversies involving the agency, what its supporters should be concerned about are the 15 million Californians – 68 percent of the voting population -- who either opposed or did not feel strongly about Prop. 71 in last fall's election. That group represents an opening, a potential market for those would seek to destroy CIRM.

Before we venture on, let's look at the numbers from last fall. California's secretary of state reports that in the November election, the state counted 22 million eligible voters, meaning “the people.” Only seven million supported Prop. 71 – 32 percent of eligible voters. Another 4.9 million – 21 percent of eligible voters – opposed it.

How can this be, you might ask, given the 59 percent approval figure? It is fairly simple. That number is derived only from the people who voted, and many did not.

Out of the 22 million possible voters, only 16.6 million chose to register to vote. Minus those who actually voted for or against Prop. 71, that leaves 4.7 million registered voters who skipped right by Prop. 71 and another 5.6 million people who just did not care at all (did not register to vote). Add up the opposition voters (4.9 million), registered voters who chose not to vote on the measure (4.7 million) and those who did not register vote (5.6 million) and you have roughly 15 million people, give or take a few because of rounding.

President Bush and his minions last year taught us all a lesson about numbers like these. They looked at the persons who ordinarily did not vote. They mobilized them (mainly using the Christian right), energized them and thrashed John Kerry.

There is nothing new about people not registering or not choosing to vote once they are registered. But it means that Klein and company cannot find much solace in the 59 percent figure. It could easily turn into so much dross. Last fall's election was dominated by presidential politics. Most observers agree that voters did not look closely at Prop. 71, along with a bunch of other state measures. A substantial segment of the population, properly motivated, could turn on CIRM, a situation that a fledgling bureaucracy does not need.

If these numbers come as a surprise, it is because the media and others, for years, have become comfortable with using a flaccid shorthand. The persons who cast ballots become “the people.” Forgotten are the rest who rise up from time to time and do strange things.

On March 16, Klein said that “the voters of California sent a clear message.” Perhaps or perhaps not. But there is certainly an opening for the enemies of CIRM, especially since an oversight measure could be placed on the ballot next fall. The chairman might best heed the counsel of Zach Hall, the new president of the agency, who said on March 9, “The success of our venture will critically depend on the confidence of the people of California in our integrity and credibility. Decisions made by the Institute must be transparent and must be perceived to be fair and objective judgments based on scientific merit, free of bias and conflict of interest.”

Needless to say, “perceived” is a very important word for the agency.

No comments:

Post a Comment