Pleb’.i.scite (noun)

Plebiscite is a word one doesn’t use every day or even in a lifetime for many.  It is a synonym for referendum, which is an old friend in California among other overtly opinionated jurisdictions (Switzerland takes the international prize for its countless referendums). 

A plebiscite is an up or down vote, as they say these days, on an issue or ballot measure.   It differs from an election which technically involves voting to choose candidates for elected office.  We use the word “election” a bit loosely as an umbrella term when we conduct General or Municipal elections to put one candidate in office and decide the fate of ballot measures.  The precise among us would resist such lazy usage, though the wordsmiths do not advise regarding a single term that combines both an election and a plebiscite (or referendum).  

Plebiscite likely lost favor in the vernacular as our ability to spell well declined.  We can’t pronounce polysyllabic words with confidence, either.  Go on.  Ask ten people how to read aloud and spell plebiscite and see how many can do so correctly.  It’s a dead word to most of us.

It remains in favor with lawyers, who involuntarily gravitate toward those things that artificially distance us from the hoi polloi.  At this moment, the Bar Association of San Francisco (BASF or “bassiff”) is conducting a plebiscite regarding whom to endorse in the City’s District Attorney race.   There are five candidates, presented to a packed room of the BASF membership last week during a forum conducted by the San Francisco League.  Note that even though the plebiscite involves candidates it is not an election.  The membership is not directly voting to identify the person who will ascend to the office.  This vote will determine an endorsement. 

Endorsements are quite common during campaign season.  Many of us choose our candidates or decided on issues partially (or entirely) by the endorsers.  Remarkably, people already are endorsing Republican candidates for the party’s presidential nominee.  Seems a trifle early, considering how people can flame out. 

The people in power over the voting entity – in this case, the BASF membership – decide and follow rules to ensure integrity in the plebiscite process.  For the BASF’s plebiscite, at least one-third of the members must vote.  Then, only if one candidate receives 50% of the votes will there be an endorsement.  With five candidates, this is a high hurdle.  Nonetheless, BASF will publish the plebiscite results which may become guidance for its members, incremental to the campaign advertising and unequivocal endorsements the candidates will broadcast.  

We never miss an opportunity to remind ourselves that informed voting is a citizen’s privilege and obligation, whether in a plebiscite or an election.  BASF members are limbering up for November 8.  So should we all in our own way, in particular during times such as these.  Stay tuned to the League website for its usual objective pro & con description of the ballot measures.  Please search carefully for balanced information about the candidates.   Be ready on November 8.

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