Thursday, April 26 , 2018, 8:32 am | Fog/Mist 54º


Harris Sherline: Political Promises

Thirty years later, California Sen. H.L. 'Bill' Richardson's insights into our misconceptions of the political process still hold true.

Political promises are generally empty, meaningless gestures made by candidates when they are trolling for votes. “I will listen to all the people,” a candidate will say. Or, “I will protect the interests of all the people when I am in office.”

Harris R. Sherline

Do you believe statements such as these when politicians make them? Or do you shrug them off with the thought in the back of your mind that it’s just more of the political baloney that goes with running for office, not really expecting anything except more self-serving actions once candidates are in office?

Thirty years ago, California state Sen. H.L. (Bill) Richardson wrote an interesting and insightful book with the intriguing title, “What Makes You Think We Read the Bills?” He offered a penetrating analysis of the fact that the so-called majority does not, in fact, elect public officials and made the point that politicians are obligated only to a very small percentage of the voters, and it is this minority they listen to.

Using the example of a district with a population of 525,000, he showed how the candidate who won was actually elected with a plurality of just 16,000 voters.

Sen. Richardson’s observation is something I believe most people know instinctively, that once elected, notwithstanding all their talk about “listening to the people,” politicians do what they want, not what their constituents, the people, want. Politicians generally don’t listen to anyone except the limited number of supporters who are directly involved in helping them get elected or who help them stay in office.

Selected quotes from Sen. Richardson’s book outline his conclusions:

» “In a democracy we ‘know’ the majority elects. Right? Wrong! Majorities rarely, if ever, elect” (page 112).

» “In a democracy, most politicians are inevitably influenced by public opinion. Right? Wrong again” (page 112). Note: We have seen some notable exceptions to this rule in recent years, specifically when large numbers of savvy Internet users overwhelm legislators with faxes, e-mail messages and telephone calls on certain hot-button issues, such as immigration, which can bring sufficient pressure to bear on office holders to induce them to change a particular position. The Internet, of course, was not available at the time Sen. Richardson was in office or wrote his book.

» “If we waited for majorities to elect, most of our legislative chambers would be empty. Obviously, only those who register can vote (or so we are told). This eliminates a sizable portion of the eligible voters at the very start. In fact, the very term ‘eligible’ voter tells us that there are those who are ineligible to vote. Among those are persons disenfranchised for reason of age, mental efficiency or insufficient length of residency” (page 112).

» “Since the contest almost inevitably comes down to Democrat vs. Republican, those who register as ‘independent’ or who ‘decline to state’ have little nothing to say in the primary elections. To have a meaningful voice, these independent and uncommitted voters must then choose between the two candidates fielded by the very political parties they have chosen not to join” (page 113).

» Commenting on the fact that less than 50 percent of the registered voters often turn out in a primary election, Sen. Richardson notes, “A vote delivers the power of the state into the hands of the elected official. A nonvote simply transfers the decision as to who shall hold this power into the hands of those who do vote. ... At this point, another factor comes into play — gerrymandering. Most political district lines are established by the party in power. ... A candidate with little chance of victory has even a smaller chance of attracting the necessary financial support. Money creates winners and winners attract money” (page 113).

» “Since the majority-party primary is usually crowded with a number of hopefuls, the primary winner is quite often nominated with a plurality of 25 percent, or even less. I know of one district that had a population of 525,000 persons. About 400,000 could have qualified to vote, but only 225,000 bothered to register. In the primary, slightly more than 50 percent of those registered turned out at the polls to vote — about 120,000 people altogether. The minority party garnered 50,000 votes of that total, split between two lackluster candidates. The majority party had eight candidates, of whom five were strong contenders. The remaining 70,000 votes were split among these eight candidates, and the victor won with 16,000. In the general election, this candidate easily defeated the minority-party nominee” (page 114).

After 30 years, Sen. Richardson’s book is still available, at It’s an interesting and entertaining insight into the political process and confirms the fact that things really haven’t changed all that much since he was in office.

Harris R. Sherline is a retired CPA and former chairman and CEO of Santa Ynez Valley Hospital who has lived in Santa Barbara County for more than 30 years. He stays active writing opinion columns and his own blog,

  • Ask
  • Vote
  • Investigate
  • Answer

Noozhawk Asks: What’s Your Question?

Welcome to Noozhawk Asks, a new feature in which you ask the questions, you help decide what Noozhawk investigates, and you work with us to find the answers.

Here’s how it works: You share your questions with us in the nearby box. In some cases, we may work with you to find the answers. In others, we may ask you to vote on your top choices to help us narrow the scope. And we’ll be regularly asking you for your feedback on a specific issue or topic.

We also expect to work together with the reader who asked the winning questions to find the answer together. Noozhawk’s objective is to come at questions from a place of curiosity and openness, and we believe a transparent collaboration is the key to achieve it.

The results of our investigation will be published here in this Noozhawk Asks section. Once or twice a month, we plan to do a review of what was asked and answered.

Thanks for asking!

Click Here to Get Started >

Support Noozhawk Today

You are an important ally in our mission to deliver clear, objective, high-quality professional news reporting for Santa Barbara, Goleta and the rest of Santa Barbara County. Join the Hawks Club today to help keep Noozhawk soaring.

We offer four membership levels: $5 a month, $10 a month, $25 a month or $1 a week. Payments can be made through PayPal below, or click here for information on recurring credit-card payments.

Thank you for your vital support.

Maestro, Mastercard, Visa, American Express, Discover, Debit

Reader Comments

Noozhawk is no longer accepting reader comments on our articles. Click here for the announcement. Readers are instead invited to submit letters to the editor by emailing them to [email protected]. Please provide your full name and community, as well as contact information for verification purposes only.

Daily Noozhawk

Subscribe to Noozhawk's A.M. Report, our free e-Bulletin sent out every day at 4:15 a.m. with Noozhawk's top stories, hand-picked by the editors.

Sign Up Now >