Lessons of California gambling Prop 27’s spectacular failure

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A sports book in Las Vegas.

A sports book in Las Vegas.


One might have expected a bunch of gambling outfits to be better at, you know, gambling.

FanDuel, DraftKings and other producers of personal debt and annoying ads bet nine figures’ worth of their dubiously gotten gains this fall in an attempt to take over the lucrative California sports betting market. Their winnings? A historic popular repudiation.

This was the casino equivalent of not just hitting but doubling down on a hard 17: The virtual sports bookies took a mediocre hand and went all in on it. In the course of so thoroughly playing themselves, they underscored what’s wrong with the state’s direct democracy.

The best that can be said for Proposition 27, the latest misadventure in the state’s initiative process, is that the voters were right — really right. Nearly 8 million Californians and counting, or 83% of those who cast ballots, voted against the measure.

Prop. 27 contrived to cede the sports betting market to internet gambling giants, dramatically increase gambling access statewide, undermine California’s delegation of gambling rights to Native Americans, and top it all off with a cynical appeal to those appropriately concerned about homelessness. This turned out to be considerably less popular than forced childbearing and menthol cigarettes, other causes that fared poorly on this ballot, sure, but not so poorly as Prop. 27.

In losing every one of the state’s 58 counties, the campaign for Prop. 27 became the latest to debunk the notion that enough money can buy enough votes for just about anything. DraftKings, FanDuel and company had over $150 million riding on this thing, which so far amounts to over $100 for every yes vote.

But Prop. 27 wasn’t just the greatest and costliest failure on this ballot; it was one of the worst faceplants in over a century of direct California democracy. While votes are still being counted, it currently ranks as the most resounding rejection of a statewide measure in nearly two decades and in the bottom 10 of all time. The constituency for Prop. 27 looks to be smaller than the share of Americans who suspect that vaccines contain microchips, the moon landing was faked and the Earth is flat.

Not that we should allow 27, for all its gaudy repugnance, to completely overshadow a collection of propositions that, despite being modest in number by historical standards, featured other remarkable duds.

Prop. 27 rival Prop. 26, which would have granted the tribes control over sports gambling, was complicated and perhaps doomed by its efforts to prop up the horse-racing industry and cripple urban card rooms. It’s also getting crushed despite its ample underwriting, with more than two-thirds of the electorate voting no.

Being similarly convoluted, at loggerheads and backed by seemingly endless piles of house winnings, Props. 26 and 27 achieved a political version of the doctrine of mutually assured destruction. Judging by the results, their miserable synergy epitomized the waste, confusion and exasperation inherent in the initiative process.

But all the useless politicking over gambling shouldn’t lead us to overlook another caricature of the process: Prop. 29, the union-backed measure that forced voters to weigh in on the details of dialysis clinic operations for the third time in four years. With 69% of ballots going against the measure, voters look to be growing steadily more opposed to an idea they didn’t like very much at first. The Service Employees International Union’s increasingly lackluster efforts on behalf of what has become a biennial campaign reinforce the impression that its only goal is to harass dialysis providers in a futile attempt to organize their employees at the expense of patients and voters.

The halfheartedness of the Prop. 29 campaign was surpassed only by the emphysemic effort for Prop. 31, a referendum that failed to overturn a state ban on flavored tobacco products. The cigarette makers’ relatively paltry spending on the campaign invites the conclusion that it was meant mainly to delay the law long enough to allow a couple more years of sales.

Taxing rich people to subsidize electric vehicles, as Prop. 30 would have done, is a more defensible and public-spirited cause than minty smokes or football betting. But its reliance on Big Tech taxi dispatcher Lyft, which just got done buying itself dispensation from state labor law under a 2020 initiative, handed a powerful counterargument to its opponents, chief among them Gov. Gavin Newsom and some of his favorite zillionaires.

All these special-interest-fueled failures stand in stark contrast to the ballot’s two successes. Prop. 1, enshrining abortion rights in the state constitution, looks to be the most popular cause or candidate on the ballot, winning nearly two-thirds of the vote. Prop. 28, dedicating spending to arts and music education in public schools, has almost as much support.

These two very different causes were united by relatively modest campaign spending. They also shared the distinction of posing legitimate policy questions that most Californians could and arguably should answer.

Put another way, they are what direct democracy ought to look like. Unfortunately, they’re also the exception in these parts. Most of what ends up on California ballots amounts to a collection of mercenary attempts to thwart or advance one corporate or special interest over another.

Some of these campaigns, like this year’s gambling showdown, unfold in vacuums left by lawmakers failing to do their jobs and make or propose coherent policy to the voters. Others, like the tobacco referendum, provide one more unnecessary opportunity for the wealthy to influence and alter the laws in place. All cry out for reforms to make a supposed means of democracy serve its intended purpose.

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Josh Gohlke is Deputy California Opinion Editor for McClatchy and The Sacramento Bee. He was previously deputy opinion editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer and the San Francisco Chronicle.

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