The XX Factor

Why I’m Not Voting for California’s Anti-Sex-Trafficking Ballot Initiative

Almost everyone is for this.

Photo by Jay Directo/AFP/Getty Images.

Today marks my first time voting in the state of California, and in addition to the chance to elect Roseanne Barr for president, I also have the opportunity to end modern-day sex slavery once and for all. Or so my ballot tells me. “STOP HUMAN TRAFFICKING. PREVENT THE SEXUAL EXPLOITATION OF CHILDREN,” proponents of Prop 35, a ballot initiative that asks voters to enforce stricter penalties on human traffickers, announce in all caps on the state’s official voter’s guide. But as I cast my ballot today, I’m learning more about the failures of California’s proposition system than my state’s approach to sex-slave drivers.

Most voters are aware that human trafficking is a no good, very bad thing. Unfortunately, they’re not necessarily aware of much more than that. As the Los Angeles Times notes, our proposition system means that California voters “must ask more than whether they would like to see [sex trafficking’s] cruelties come to an end” and focus on the intricacies of the law instead—a task I’m not sure most voters are equipped to handle. As critics of the proposition have argued, this particular approach could conflate victims and pimps, bloat the sex-offender registry, make women of color and trans women more vulnerable to police profiling, and prioritize sex trafficking over more common forms of forced labor in California state. These are difficult arguments for the layman to parse. The SAGE Project, an advocacy group in San Francisco for victims of trafficking, initially put its weight behind Prop 35. It later rescinded its support “after careful review of the measure.” If even an organization dedicated to human trafficking can’t get its position right on the first try, how are we to expect voters to navigate the ballot?

In theory, returning the power to the people seems like the democratic thing to do. The Times notes that in some cases, “voter initiatives can be an important check on a legislature so captured by special interests or partisan politics that it fails to deal with problems as they arise.” Unfortunately, they can also enable rich donors to take their pet projects over the heads of policymakers and straight to nonexpert voters who may be loathe to vote against a measure that claims to “PREVENT THE SEXUAL EXPLOITATION OF CHILDREN.” As Mother Jones’ Kevin Drum argues, “most initiatives these days are funded by corporate interests, not the grassroots,” and their influence leads to laws that are “essentially etched in stone forever.” If we screw up on one proposition, we’ll have to mount yet another proposition to cover our tracks. That can be tough when these big ballot initiatives are funded by billionaires—in this case, ex-Facebook privacy chief Chris Kelly. Meanwhile, their opponents—like the sex-worker advocates who have spoken against the proposition—aren’t nearly so flush, and their argument is a lot more nuanced. It’s hard to sell uneducated voters on a platform like, “PREVENT THE SEXUAL EXPLOITATION OF CHILDREN, ONLY NOT THIS WAY!”

And actually, the California legislature is pretty tough on human trafficking as it is. Anti-trafficking organization The Polaris Project ranks California’s laws as some of the best in the country. They can stand to be improved, but the state’s lawmakers have shown a commitment to constantly fortifying them. California’s most sweeping anti-trafficking law, passed in 2005, “has been fine-tuned more than a dozen times over the last seven years as experience was gained, people were prosecuted and legal holes were discovered and plugged,” the Times reports. Last week, Gov. Jerry Brown added two more anti-trafficking laws to California’s books. Personally, I think Californians should elect legislators to make laws, not Facebook billionaires looking for a loophole to put some feel-good into the world. But hey: I’m new here.