October 2018 – Voting Rights . . . And Wrongs

by Justice William W. Bedsworth

Goethe famously said, “To rule is easy, to govern difficult.” To which I say—in the interest of maintaining the high level of the discussion, “Boy, howdy.”

Ruling is easy. The vocabulary is third-grade level: “Make it so.” “Call up the guard.” “Off with his head.” Easy-peasy.

Governing . . . that’s much harder—even though the vocabulary is similar. Oh, there’s lots of fancy words in Roberts Rules of Order and EPA reports and such, but that’s all dross. We live in a post-fact, post-history era.

And in this era, what makes governing harder is that one specific word, that part of the vocabulary which we are now approaching: elections.

You don’t get to govern if you don’t get elected. And that whole election thing is as hard to control as a hog on ice.

The volumes of the annotated Elections Code in my chambers extend a full foot along the shelf. Imagine trying to read all the Harry Potter books in Greek, and you’ve got the California Elections Code.1

And that isn’t even the tip of the iceberg. That’s a slushy in Antarctica. That’s a popsicle in a comet.

Every state has election codes. And every state has uncodified rules and regulations governing elections. And every state has highly educated, highly compensated people trained to find ways around those codes, rules, and regulations.2

Not to mention the federal government.3 Even with a Congress that refuses to vote on anything more complicated than today’s lunch venue, we’ve got enough federal election law to wipe out the rain forests of Brazil if we ever decide to re-print it. There wouldn’t be a tree left in America if we hadn’t been able to store all this stuff in the Intertubes.4

But recent events have established that for all our legislating and regulating and investigating and cogitating, elections are not yet an exact science. Dipsticks that we are, we humans can screw up anything.5

My favorite story in this regard6 involves the Great State of Wisconsin.7 In 1985, a Wisconsin state senator decided the state’s license plate motto—America’s Dairyland—was “ugly and boring.” So Wisconsin decided to poll its residents about what they wanted on the plates.8

Unfortunately, Wisconsin’s governor, Anthony S. Earl, apparently inspired by New Hampshire’s stirring “Live Free or Die” plates and cognizant of Wisconsin’s “America’s Dairyland” status, suggested in a moment of weakness that “Eat Cheese or Die” might be a good slogan.

Well, good or bad, the governor’s tongue-in-cheek suggestion swamped the ballot box. When they called the whole thing off, they had received 46,000 responses in a week, and “Eat Cheese or Die” was on its way to a landslide victory.

In fairness to Badgers everywhere, the competition was not all that strong. “We Like it Here” was singularly uninspiring, and “America’s Northern Escape” sounded like an underground railway stop for Americans fleeing to Canada.

So they stuck with “America’s Dairyland.”

Clearly, asking people to vote on something is risky business. Voters are harder to herd than cats. While voters generally share cats’ contrarian nature9 and reluctance to read,10 they are also possessed of an innate resistance to authority.

My personal opinion is that this is the natural result of a “civilization” that has endorsed feudalism, slavery, income inequality, mimes, and Mounds bars for most of its existence. You can’t burn people at the stake, put them on the rack, let them eat cake, and deny them basic human rights, and then be surprised when they resist authority.

So any time you put something to a vote—a necessary concomitant of governing, but not a part of ruling—you are taking a chance on a bad result. Goethe was right.

Witness the problem our British cousins—who also chose government over rule—have been having with boat naming. The UK made the Wisconsin mistake in 2016. They announced a poll to name a new government scientific research vessel.

I would chide them for not learning from history, but who in hell reads Wisconsin history? Americans are lucky if we can get within three centuries of the correct dates of the Hundred Years War, why should Brits be alert to the “Eat Cheese or Die” mistake?

Anyway, the runaway winner of the poll, with a third of the vote, was Boaty McBoatface. In the immortal words of the great political philosopher Billy Joel, “Don’t wait for answers, just take your chances, don’t ask me why.”

The Brits, doubtless concerned about their ability to phrase press releases announcing important scientific discoveries made by scientists aboard Boaty McBoatface, instead named the boat the RRS Sir David Attenborough after a famous British naturalist knighted in 1974.

They named the two-person submersible kept on the RRS Attenborough “Boaty McBoatface.” “The will of the people” and all that.

A year later, the City of Sydney, Australia—inexplicably unaware of the Boaty McBoatface debacle—announced the same kind of competition to name their new inner-harbor ferries.

The winner? Yep. Boaty McBoatface.

Well, hell, they didn’t want to do that because the name had been taken. By those snooty Brits, no less. For a dinky little submersible.

So they took the second-place name: Ferry McFerryface.11

After The Maritime Union of Australia refused to crew the boat—how would it look in the headlines: “Twenty-Seven Die in Collision of Ferry McFerryface with Tanker”—the ferry authority changed its name to Emerald 6.

But they agreed to put a huge sticker on the bridge of the ferry that reads “Ferry McFerryface.” “The will of the people” and all that.

Apparently this is metastasizing all over Europe. Sweden now has a train named . . . sing along with me, children . . . Trainy McTrainface.

By now you know how this happened. The Swedish railway authority had a contest to name a new train. The four names submitted to the public were Hakan, Miriam, Poseidon,12 and Trainy McTrainface. Trainy got 49% of the vote. In other words, it was not close.

So there it is, folks. Governing is hard as hell.

And now, for today’s public service message: Next month, America will go to the polls for its most important election since 1932. Please get out and vote. Please.

And please do not vote for Congress McCongressface.


  1. And at least when you finish the Harry Potter books, you can discuss them with friends and grandchildren. Nobody wants to discuss the Elections Code.
  2. Some of them are called lawyers.
  3. My cardiologist has suggested I should not mention the federal government—at least until he has time to buy stock in blood pressure medications. But—as you may have noticed in the thirty-eight years I’ve been writing this column—discipline is not my long suit.
  4. I’m told the Intertubes use unimaginably advanced plumbing and cannot be clogged up by stuff like election law.
  5. The toughest theological question for those of us who believe in a capital-C Creator is how She could have produced such flawed creations. My answer has always been, “She created alcohol first,” but the Franciscans and Jesuits who educated me were not impressed with that explanation, so I’ve stopped saying it out loud. Uh . . . until just now.
  6. It’s my favorite because I can tell it without getting my mouth washed out with soap.
  7. “On Wisconsin, on Wisconsin, stand up Badgers sing!”
  8. A poll is just like an election except that it’s conducted by someone unfamiliar with humans.
  9. “In ancient times, cats were regarded as gods in Egypt; they have not forgotten this.” Terry Pratchett.
  10. “Cats can’t read, and they don’t want you to.” A cartoon I saw years ago and remember every time one of mine sprawls across my morning paper.
  11. Sometimes this column just writes itself.
  12. Odd choice for a train, especially if it runs by bodies of water.


William W. Bedsworth is an Associate Justice of the California Court of Appeal. He writes this column to get it out of his system. He can be contacted at william.bedsworth@jud.ca.gov. And look for his new book, Lawyers, Gubs, and Monkeys, through Amazon and Vandeplas Publishing.