Are California Elections a Triumph of Democracy—or a Defeat? 

The Golden State Keeps Making It Easier to Vote, and Harder to Understand What to Vote For

Are California Elections a Triumph of Democracy—or a Defeat?  | Zocalo Public Square • Arizona State University • Smithsonian

Sacramento County is among the 15 counties in the state that have replaced traditional polling places with multi-purpose "vote centers," such as this one, where people who live anywhere in the county can vote early, drop off ballots or register to vote. Courtesy of Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press.

It was the best of California elections. It was the worst of California elections.

Consider the paradox, if you will, of this moment of democratic triumph, which is also a moment of democratic defeat.

It has never been easier to vote in California than it is right now.

And it has never been harder to figure out what to vote for.

In one sense, the March elections in California represent the culmination of several years of herculean efforts to extend Californians’ voting rights. Not long ago, California had one of the lowest voter participation rates in the country; in 2014, our June election saw record low turnout. But state officials, county election registrars, and non-profits have managed to reverse that trend.

Their main strategy was to make voting more convenient. So you can now register to vote online. You also can register to vote at any time, including on election day itself. And under a new law, you can change your party registration whenever you want as well. If you have questions about any of this, you can get answers not just in English and Spanish and Chinese—those are easy—but in seven other languages, including Khmer.

Today you no longer have to get out and find the one particular precinct that will accept your vote; this year, in 15 counties, you can go to any of hundreds of vote centers. The centers are open for several days before election day—including on weekends, when most people don’t have to work.

If you don’t feel like going out, California has embraced voting by mail. That allows you to have a party with your friends, sit with your spouse, or enjoy a margarita by the pool as you fill out your ballot. Heck, you can vote on any mountain, in any valley, or on any beach in this big and beautiful state! Doing your civic duty has never been more glorious.

In many counties, you don’t even have to request a mail ballot—they automatically send you one. And you no longer have to get your mail ballot in ahead of time. Just have it postmarked by election day, or turn it in at a vote center, and it will be counted.

If you’re a Californian, be proud of all this. At a time when the rest of the country and world are having doubts about democracy, California has become a bastion of greater participation. More Californians—beyond 20 million—are registered to vote than ever before. And turnout has been up, especially among non-whites and the young.

Is this a great democratic state or what?

The answer to that question, unfortunately, is: Or what.

After decades of failures and missed opportunities, this California election represents yet another defeat for democracy.

All that new infrastructure to get people to vote has not been accompanied by infrastructure to help people inform themselves about how they vote. To the contrary, people are more misinformed than ever.

California newspapers, which once were the primary independent sources for news and context to inform voters, are in decline or gone. Most election races on the ballot don’t get covered at all. Most ballot measures are also ignored—even though such measures are getting longer (routinely more than 5,000 words) and more complicated. At the local level, candidates don’t even have their parties listed on the ballot, so we voters don’t even have partisan cues. Voting in this realm is pure guesswork.

At a time when the rest of the country and world are having doubts about democracy, California has become a bastion of greater participation. More Californians—beyond 20 million—are registered to vote than ever before. And turnout has been up, especially among non-whites and the young.

With more candidates and measures, ballots have grown in size and confusion. The state’s Official Voter Information Guide doesn’t cover all the races on the ballot, and it sometimes has significant omissions. This March, for example, the text of Prop 13, which is a school bond (and not the famous 1978 tax initiative), omits perhaps the biggest risk associated with the measure: that its passage would lift local school debt limits, when many school districts are already at risk of insolvency.

When voters do get information, it’s often from social media, which means it may be full of hatred, errors or deliberate misinformation. And in contrast to all the efforts to get us voting, very little has been put into helping us sort through the nonsense. Our informational infrastructure is so weak that most Californians don’t even know all the ways that voting has been improved. In the 15 counties with new, highly convenient voting centers, a poll showed that more than 60 percent of voters don’t know about the changes.

Why? Our state government and our media have failed to explain, accurately and memorably, how our elections have changed. And the state and media don’t bother to get very basic things right—like the very name of the elections themselves.

Ten years ago, California eliminated primary elections for state offices. To replace primaries, voters approved what’s called a “top two” system, where the first-round election is actually a general election, when candidates from all parties appear on the ballot and voters have the most choice. The second round is a run-off for the top two finishers in the general election. Once you understand the logic of the “top two,” it’s clear that the more important election is the first one, when voters have lots of choices, rather than the second.

Still, the state and elite media persist in calling the first round, inaccurately, a primary. This is a clear mistake, with real consequences, since California voters—especially the younger and diverse voters who are registered independents—are less likely to turn out for primary elections than general elections. But the state won’t fix the problem, and the media won’t correct the error. Outlets from the New York Times (slogan: “The Truth Is Worth It”) to KPCC (“democracy needs to be heard”) continue to perpetuate the mistake.

In the March 3 elections, the mislabeling adds another dimension of confusion to an already long and confusing ballot. Because political parties still hold primaries in California for president, the presidential contest actually is a primary—and it is the rare primary in which independent voters can participate, because the California Democratic Party allows non-partisans to request a Democratic ballot in primaries. Unfortunately, while three-quarters of independents want to vote in the presidential primary, fewer than one-fifth have managed to obtain a ballot.

At the same time, all the other races on your ballot—everything from state assembly and senate to city council—will be general elections. So between the presidential primary and the state general, March 3 will be, quite literally, a tale of two elections.

Unfortunately, Dickens isn’t writing this story. Our election tale is now being told by national media who don’t understand California, and by leading American politicians like
Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, both of whom have made false attacks on California’s election system. That may be why polls show 20 percent of likely California voters saying they are not confident that their ballot will be counted.

Those doubters are distressingly wrong. California is so committed to counting every ballot that the count will go on for weeks after election day. For the crime of being inclusive and careful in the count, California, of course, will be savaged by the national media, political elites, and online trolls, demanding to know, “What is taking so long?”

In the near term, there is little we can do to counter the avalanche of lies told about our elections. But in the long term, we need to construct new processes of deliberation to serve our growing population of voters. We could really use a more comprehensive voter guide, for starters. And it would be fantastic to have election juries made up of regular citizens chosen at random to study the most complicated ballot questions and races, and report back to the rest of us on what they find.

Such reforms have drawn little interest from our elected leaders, who are reluctant to change the systems that elected them. But we voters undeniably need more support and better information.

Until we get that, California elections may be events where nearly everyone votes, and no one knows what they’re doing.


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