Why our vote for Proposition 7 won’t change the way Californians experience time.

The Ghost Of Time Past

Story Patty Malesh

Time. Twice annually, we screw with it. Take an hour from one day; add one around four months later. Every autumn after we “fall back,” I scowl at a night sky that’s jumped the gun and made early evening feel more like eternal night. I dream of revolution and revolt, of a march on Washington at dusk on the shortest day of the year. 

I want to see tens of thousands of Americans, all shades, all genders and sexualities, the richest oligarchs marching arm-in-arm with subway buskers, documented and undocumented, millennials and boomers, Texans alongside Californians flanked by Detroiters, all side-by-side in solidarity and unison chanting, “Hell, no! Hell, no! We won’t let our hour go!” and holding signs with slogans like “Keep Your Laws Off My Clocks.” Signs with photoshopped images of Johnny Cash giving us all the bird, only in this version, it’s Father Time underscored by the slogan “Time is Mine!” And I am not alone. 

Research has shown that time shifts in either direction—springing forward an hour and falling back—can trigger depression and bipolar disorders. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is associated specifically with losing an hour of afternoon light at the onset of winter, while increased rates of suicide, miscarriages, and heart attacks correlate with the start of Daylight Savings Time every spring. Time change also leads to negative, even dangerous, physiological and cognitive impairments, albeit short term, due to changes in our circadian rhythms. 

This burdensome practice is surrounded by lore. Did the idea stem from a misread of Ben Franklin’s 1784 satirical letter to the editor in the Journal de Paris, in which he suggested Parisians wake earlier to save money on candles? (I doubt it.) Was it to give farmers an extra hour of daylight during the grow season? (No. No it wasn’t.) Did the US begin the practice as a fuel-saving measure enacted during the World Wars as it was in Britain and Germany? (Sure, but not for peacetime use.) Was the candy lobby really behind the 2007 postponement of our annual fall back to standard time from late October to early November? (Yes. Yes it was.)

Time may change me…

Time didn’t used to be malleable. Time change did not become law until April 12, 1966, when congress passed, and L.B. Johnson signed into law, the Universal Time Act mandating Daylight Saving Time (DST) observance from the last Sunday of April to the last Sunday of October. This means that your living friends and family members, anyone who remembers 1970, also remembers a time when time didn’t change.

Not every state hopped on board in 1966, and that was their right—at the time. Hawaii and Arizona keep the same time year-round. (They look at us and SMDH.) And strangely enough, though the practice is said to be linked to farmers, it is the farm lobby we have to thank for delaying the mandate in peacetime that FDR hoped to enact permanently after WWII. By 1966, however, congress could no longer tolerate the free-for-all that led to inconsistent time practices across states and regions, voting to lock it all down under federal law. Specifically, time was now under the purview of the Department of Transportation staffers, overlords—er, I mean overseers—of time zones and the “universal observance of Daylight Savings Time.” It makes sense when you think about it. Our time lords are transit professionals because it’s not just time travel that matters, it’s time that matters to travelers (and goods and the sellers of goods). The Universal Time Act marks the end of chapter one in our story about changing time. 

Then things get weird. In 1972, the law was amended for states that spanned two time zones, allowing them to opt out of the observance of Daylight Savings Time in part or all of their state. Enter Indiana. Pay close attention; this isn’t pretty. Taking full advantage of this legal tweak, most of the counties in Indiana decided to observe Eastern Standard Time year-round and opt out of Daylight Savings Time. A few rogue counties followed their inner Johnny Cash and decided to choose #TeamCentralTime and #TeamDST, thereby syncing them with Chicago, Illinois, year-round but with Indianapolis only during the national observance of DTS. This hot mess lasted until 2005 when, because of this legal loophole, Indiana was granted the gift of time. The state was allowed to refuse to observe DST like its Hawaiian and Arizonan kin. Then in 1986, Ronald Reagan signed into law yet another time f**k whereby DST began on the first Sunday in April, rather than the last, extending DST from approximately six months to approximately seven months in duration. 

Then again in 2005, George W. Bush, with much encouragement from the candy lobby—and the golf lobby and big barbeque (what?)—saw opportunity in one more hour of daylight guaranteed through Halloween. The Energy Policy Act of 2005 changed the start of DST to the second Sunday in March and the end to the first Sunday in November. Our current approach to time, in California and 46 other US states, began after the passage of this act on March 11, 2007. 

…but you can’t trace time.

When all is said and done, I’m not mad at it. The way I see it, we are now only four months shy of year-round late-day sun. I am holding out hope that we can just go Full Monty this time, all 12 months every year from now on, instead of eking in that direction by falling back later or springing forward sooner until time stands still enough to fuse together as one again. 

With any luck (and a bit of lobbying), this past November just may have been the last time California f**ks with time. In the 2018 California general election, ballot Proposition 7 passed with 7,167,315 “yes” votes, just shy of 60 percent of total votes and a fairly strong victory for proponents. Prop 7 called, in its own cute and totally user-friendly-ballot-language kind of way, for the end of time change protocols and procedures in our great state. However, the ballot proposition was not a straight vote to make Daylight Savings Time permanent because…laws. Rather, it gave the state legislature the authority to “change Daylight Savings Time period by two-thirds vote, if changes are consistent with federal law.” And right now, federal law still prohibits doing so. Unsurprisingly, then, the one thing we can all agree on is changing time is never simple. 

In January 2020, Democratic Rep. Kansen Chu from San Jose, an original sponsor of Proposition 7, vowed to move California Assembly Bill 7 forward in the Senate Energy, Utilities, and Communications committee. In order for the bill to become law, it needs a two-thirds vote from both the Assembly and the Senate. Even if it does pass, however, we still need to deal with that pesky federal law. Currently, there are four bills in the US Congress designed to grant states the power to change the changing of time—but not in a timely manner. Congress has until December 2020 to act on these bills. Le sigh

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