Decision day on infant governors

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The Independent Online
BRIAN HUTCHINGS is a political candidate who does not mince his words. If elected, he says forthrightly in his campaign literature, he will oppose sanctions on Myanmar and any country that George Soros happens to take a dislike to. "That is crazy! If we're going to have a foreign policy it should be based upon a just, new economic order," he writes.

Comforting words, no doubt, for the government of Myanmar, particularly if Mr Hutchings, a 38-year-old geometry teacher, reaches the dizzy heights of the Santa Monica city council here in southern California.

Another forthright candidate, although of a very different ilk, is Byron Looper in central Tennessee. To make sure that the voters in his race for state senate knew where he stood on fiscal matters, he had his name officially changed to Byron (low tax) Looper, parentheses included. Regrettably, he is also suspected of being the man who put a bullet in the brain of the incumbent senator, Tommy Burks, two weeks ago.

As Americans await the results of yesterday's mid-term elections, they can take comfort in the fact that their democracy, while not always healthy, is certainly vibrant and alive in all its myriad complexions.

Mr Burks is one of at least two candidates who have died during the campaign, but whose names will continue to appear on the ballot. In his case, voters are being urged to "write in" the name of his wife on their ballots and choose her instead. In the case of Sherman Block, the late sheriff of Los Angeles county, supporters are still campaigning for his re-election for bizarre reasons of local power politics.

Elsewhere, there is the prospect of gay marriages in Hawaii (possibly generating a new sort of tourism to the Pacific islands), unlimited gambling on Indian reservations in California and legalised marijuana for medical purposes across much of the far west.

Aside from the much- scrutinised federal elections (all 435 House seats and 34 Senate seats are up for grabs) and the races for 36 governorships, voters will have to decide on a whole range of appointments, from their state legislature down to their local school boards, and also a variety of special initiatives that highlight the peculiarities of this extraordinarily diverse country.

It emerges, for example, that a two-year-old can be voted governor of South Dakota. It has never happened (child appointments having gone out of fashion with the poor example set by the Renaissance papacy), and now voters in that state are being asked to raise the minimum age for candidates to 21.

In South Carolina, an anachronistic statute in the state constitution still forbids marriage between whites and blacks. Although the law was long ago deemed obsolete by the Supreme Court, the voters are being invited to strike it down themselves.

A more cutting-edge initiative is being weighed in Oregon, where voters might just decide never to go to the polls again. The issue at stake is whether to organise voting entirely by post - a measure that looks likely to be passed.

Ballot initiatives such as these are by far the most colourful aspect of United States elections. Started in South Dakota a century ago and pioneered in their modern form in California, they have become a popular means of circumventing, over-ruling or chivvying state legislatures that seem otherwise little inclined to do the people's will.

Sometimes they prove to be landmark forces, whether for good or ill. For example, California's property tax-slashing Proposition 13, passed 20 years ago, heralded the tax cuts of the Reagan era and shifted political priorities across the country away from funding for education, health and social programmes.

By now, initiatives have become so common that they sometimes appear to overwhelm the electorate. Voters in Colorado and Washington may know what they think about sanctioning late-term abortions, but in California and Massachusetts the technicalities of public-utility deregulation can seem somewhat over-technical.

The initiative process has also been infiltrated by big-money interests, which raise the requisite number of signatures and then blast the airwaves with adverts to promote their cause. California's initiative on Indian gaming, for example, has become the most expensive initiative campaign in history - $86m (pounds 52m) spent by both sides.

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