Nexus

Why Your Vote Doesn’t Count

Fixing California Won't Happen at the Polls

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On Election Day, I intend to stand reluctantly with the majority of my fellow Californians – on the sidelines and as far as from the voting booth as possible.

All the news about the election obscures the big story in California politics: most people here have concluded that voting in state elections isn’t worth their time. Of the 38 million residents in California, 23.5 million are adults, citizens and non-felons, and thus eligible to vote. In this year’s June state primaries, only 5.6 million bothered to vote – less than 25 percent of those eligible. During the last state general election in 2006, 39 percent of those eligible bothered to vote. This November’s turnout is expected to be even lower.

The last time that more than half of eligible Californians bothered to cast a ballot in a state election? 1982.

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That year roughly marks the beginning of an era in which Californians have used ballot measures to tie their representatives’ hands behind their backs by enacting spending mandates, supermajority requirements, and tax limits that prevent them from getting important business done. This trend has turned our civic life into one long, nasty cycle. In each election California’s shrinking electorate shrinks the power of elected officials, who can’t deliver what the citizenry wants.   As a result, some frustrated voters stop voting, shrinking the electorate further.  Remaining voters express their anger at the next election by shrinking the powers of the elected officials even more. And so it goes.

After three decades of this disheartening routine, there’s little left to vote on. The ballot offers mainly two choices. In candidate races, Californians get to decide which politicians to send into offices that don’t carry enough power and discretion to do much of anything about anything. In ballot initiative contests, they’re asked to consider new ways to tie the hands of the people they’re voting for in the candidate races. When these are the choices, not voting is perfectly reasonable.

I am a late guest at California’s non-voter party. I write about government and politics for a living, and yearn to believe that elections matter. I enjoy the ritual of voting. I come from a patriotic family with a history of military service. And voting has never felt like a chore. The three-block walk from my apartment to my local Los Angeles polling place, the Westside Jewish Community Center on Olympic Boulevard, is delightful.

But casting a ballot in such a broken system has come to feel like putting money in a bank you know will fail. In the past, I used to talk California non-voters (including some relatives) into voting. But in recent years, I found that my explanations grew longer and more tortured, full of guesses about the indirect effects of sending a particular political message. This year, I found I couldn’t answer a basic question: what is there to vote for?

But… but… but…. you want to protest that there are a few significant choices on the ballot.

Doesn’t it matter, you ask, who the governor of California is? The sad truth is: on the most important issues – fiscal ones – it doesn’t matter much at all. The fierce partisanship of the legislators and the state’s requirement of two-thirds votes on any fiscal legislation means that all governors – whatever their experience, background or party – end up stuck in the middle, able to balance budgets only through accounting fictions and questionable borrowing.

What about, you wonder, the down-ticket races for lieutenant governor, insurance commissioner and other executive offices? Sadly, those are fundraising contests between rising politicians who are building donor bases for future contests for governor or U.S. senator. As such, these executive offices serve mainly as incubators of pay-to-play corruption.

Don’t the ballot initiatives offer some promise? No, only peril. Even the well-intentioned measures are doomed – in the same way that building a good-looking addition on a house doesn’t help when the entire structure sits on toxic soil. Legislative elections? You must be kidding. The state’s election system makes it impossible to change the party in charge of the legislature. So the results Tuesday are already known: Democrats will control the legislature, in the same numbers as before.

This system must be fixed. California has more supermajority-requirements and other budget restraints than any other state, and its initiative process is the world’s most inflexible, making it difficult to subsequently fix even obvious errors in measures. But repairing these systems can’t be done at the polls. Comprehensive reform of the system itself – through a constitutional convention or revision commission that permits a wholesale rewrite of California’s rules – is the only way out. Such reform will take years of organizing and engagement.

The most civic-minded thing Californians might do Tuesday is devote the hour they would have spent voting to learning more about how their state works and how they might participate in larger reform. There are a host of web sites that provide information in this area, among them California Choices and RethinkCali, the latter an effort to rewrite the state constitution wiki style.

Elections are not cures, but curses, embedding the existing system more deeply in the life of the state. Each new elected official seeks to build upon an existing system (with new laws and regulations) rendered more broken by each new ballot initiative. Enough already: let’s be done with the attempt to march our way out of quicksand. I am staying home for a change.

Joe Mathews, a fourth-generation Californian and a Zócalo contributing editor, writes about his home state and its politics, media, labor, and real estate. He is co-author, with Mark Paul, of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It.

*Photo courtesy Steve Rhodes.