Thursday, December 09, 2004

The Omniscient OC Voter

Remember the UK's Daily Mirror headline, "How Can 59,054,087 People Be So DUMB?" from last month? While the political pundits continue the debate for the next four years, I think the Mirror was on to an important aspect of American electoral behavior. Public credence in our political institutions has always been very high, so when we witness elected officials and the courts blunder over debacles such as Florida in 2000 and Ohio in 2004, the public is rightly shocked and concerned. Another way of looking at incoherent election results is through the perspective of the voting class themselves - that is, what if the omniscient voters were just plain WRONG!?

And this brings us to Orange County, California. Last month the Orange Unified School District election for Trustee Area 6 pitted Phil Martinez, a local park ranger with three children attending schools in the district, and who is active in his local PTA and Boy Scouts, against Steve Rocco. Up to the election Mr. Rocco declined all interview requests, all position statement request by local unions and voter groups, issued no candidate statement with the county, and limited his campaign to a small amount of photocopied flyers and homemade lawn signs. On the ballot Mr. Martinez was identified as a "park ranger" and Mr. Rocco as an "educator."

But in the privacy of the voting booth, OC voters elected Rocco with 54.1% of the vote (33,503) while Martinez received 45.9% (28,448). In the days afterward, people began to ask, "Who is Steve Rocco?"

In the few articles since then, notably in the LA Times and the San Diego Union-Tribune, we have learned that while certified as an elementary school teacher, Steve Rocco hasn't worked in education for years. Instead, he has hosted a local public access television show and self-published a book in 1992, "Behind The Orange Curtain: Secret Chronicles and Public Record Accounts of Corruption, Murder and Scandal of Corporate and Political California." It details his charge that a coterie of local officials, judges and polititions - a group he calls "The Partnership" - have conspired against him for the past 25 years, dating to an old charge of stealing sausages from a local store. And at 53 he still lives with his parents (his father died last month).

Recently, the local NPR station KPCC conducted a pseudo-interview with Rocco. I say "pseudo" because it took place in his attorney's office and he let his lawyer do much of the talking. The LA Times reporter tagged along and gave this assessment:

Rocco is a frail man, with a pale, gaunt face covered partly by a scruffy beard. During Friday's interview, held at his lawyer's Santa Ana office, he wore large glasses with clip-on sunglasses attached. A frayed piece of black fabric tied around his left arm, he said, was to memorialize his father, who he said died Nov. 9. Rocco periodically scribbled notes on a piece of paper, meticulously noting the time each entry was made. He refused to be photographed.

Tonight, amid much media interest, Mr. Rocco will be sworn in as one of seven board members of a district serving 32,000 students in 42 schools with an annual budget of around $230 million. I wonder if he will mention his "mandate," given that he received a majority of the vote. The moral of this sorry political tale seems to be, if the voters are indeed omniscient, then surely this was the "best" man for the position. Understandably, he is not. Perhaps state officials will have to rethink the label candidates have next to their names on the ballot. This has happened before in Los Angeles County, where candidates sharing the names of famous political families garner impressive wins as voters mistakenly take them to be from a political clan (that's called social capital). Clearly, what happened here is that the cultural frames voters had around the titles "park ranger" and "educator" influenced the outcome in spite of objective evidence that Mr. Rocco was not the best candidate for the board. It is clear that voters err, sometimes outrageously, and that we should admit it openly.

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