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396779 08: The western span of the San Francisco Bay Bridge and San Francisco skyline seen November 2, 2001. Bridge security in California has been stepped up since California Governor Gray Davis announced authorities have received very credible threats that one of California's many suspension bridges may be targeted for terrorist attack between November 2 - November 7, 2001. (Photo By Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Most Californians don't think of 2011 as an election year.
But there's a very important election in November in California -- an election that will test an essential but difficult-to-sell reform that the state badly needs.
That election takes place in San Francisco, but the very important decision for voters isn't the 16-person contest for mayor that's making headlines -- and spawning head-scratching -- around the state.
No, the most important item on the San Francisco ballot is one that many San Francisco voters don't know anything about.
It's a ballot measure called Proposition E.
Prop E offers a test of whether Californians are willing to add any flexibility to a system of direct democracy that is the most inflexible in the world.
California is the only state in the U.S. where, once the voters have approved a law, it can't be amended or altered except by another vote of the people.
This makes it virtually impossible to undo things once they have been decided by the voters. This has helped tie state governance, and particularly the budget process, in knots.
The city and county of San Francisco have similar inflexibility in the local system of direct democracy.
Prop E tries to breathe a little oxygen into the sytem. It permits the legislative body in San Francisco -- the board of supervisors -- to modify or rescind a ballot measure, by a two-thirds vote, after waiting three years from the date of its approval.
Seven years after the measure passes, a simple majority vote could alter the measure. The mayor would have to sign onto such changes.
Prop E is limited. It doesn't apply to citizen's initiatives -- which would remain untouchable.
It simply applies to measures that had been placed on the ballot by elected officials themselves. It's logical to let elected officials change things that they themselves put on the ballot.
But in California, governance isn't logical. And Prop E appears to be an underdog, with opposition from various San Francisco interests and politicians.
To fix California, voter-approved measures must be made subject to legislative amendment again, but asking voters to give politicians the ability to reverse their ballot verdicts is a difficult proposition.
If Prop E passes, it would be a sign that the voters are willing to listen to reason -- and accept that they make mistakes that need fixing. If Prop E loses, it would be a setback for effective governance reform, in San Francisco and around the state.
This is a small race. But the stakes couldn't be higher.