Alex Padilla’s Voter Reforms

Tony Quinn
Editor, California Target Book

Secretary of State Alex Padilla has some nifty new ideas on how to increase California’s dreadful voter turnout – 2014 was the lowest off-year turnout in history. Unfortunately, his ideas are not likely to increase voter participation for the simple, reason that more and more California voters simply see no reason to waste their time casting a ballot.

People vote for the same reason Fredo Corleone betrayed the family in Godfather II – “there might be something in it for me.” People want to see a personal benefit in electing candidates to office, and when they don’t, there is little reason for them to bother voting.

Padilla’s reforms, which do not increase voter motivation, are aimed at making it simpler to register and vote. He is sponsoring AB 1461, the New Motor Voter Act, which will automatically register eligible people when they obtain or renew their driver’s license.

We already have the federal Motor Voter Act that allows you to register at the DMV – this just makes it automatic. Republicans have, of course, opposed this bill as it moved through the legislature on the grounds that it will make fraud easier.

Actually the opposite is true; federal law requires proof of citizenship to register and your driver’s license will act as a voter ID. Democrats say they oppose voter ID laws, but that is what this is. So fraud will actually be prevented. The real reason Republicans oppose this bill is that so few of the new voters will register as Republicans, thus further showing the weakness of the party in this state.

Padilla has modeled this bill on similar legislation in Oregon, but Oregon has something else he really likes: all mail balloting. And Oregon has far higher turnout levels than California.

Padilla’s model here is Colorado where everyone is mailed a ballot and you can drop them off before Election Day at a county voting center. SB 450 would create the same system in California. Election Day precincts would disappear; everyone would receive a mailed ballot and be able to mail it in or drop it off at an election center. “SB 450 would provide citizens more option for when, where and how they vote. Providing more options will help more citizens vote, despite our often busy lives,” Padilla says.

This bill is probably a good idea because more and more California voters cast their ballots by mail; Election Day voting is on its way out anyway. But the New Motor Voter Act is probably a waste of money; if people are so disinterested they did not register on their own, what makes anyone think they will spend the time and effort to go through complicated voting materials to cast a ballot.

People don’t vote in California because we have fewer and fewer choices, and people don’t believe their votes count. And they are right. In California in 2014, 31 percent to eligible persons actually voted; in Colorado, that number was 54 percent; third highest in the nation, only Maine and Wisconsin were higher.

What’s the difference? Maine is a true two party state; its congressional delegation is evenly split and it has a controversial Republican governor; people vote in Maine because it matters to them. In Wisconsin, another two party state, controversial GOP Gov. Scott Walker was subject to a recall half way through his first term. Again, here voting matters.

In Colorado, Padilla’s model state, in 2014 a Democrat was re-elected governor by a tiny margin while a Republican ousted the incumbent Democratic U.S. Senator. Statewide offices are split three to two Republican but President Obama carried Colorado by the tiniest of margins in 2012, and in 2016 it will be a super target state for both parties. Of course Coloradans will go the polls; it matters.

Now look at the sorry state of California. We have an open U.S. Senate seat for the first time in a quarter century, but the Democratic Party bosses have picked Attorney General Kamala Harris for the spot and worked to keep other strong candidates out. There will be no presidential race in this state; neither Democrats nor Republicans will spend a dime here because the state is so blue. So with no contests, why vote?

The big races will be multi-million dollar ballot measures, mostly over issues the people care little about. In the midst of our drought in 2014, a major water bond could not draw voters to the polls; ballot measures are unlikely to do so in 2016.

Padilla is probably wasting his time with the New Motor Voter Act; counties will end up spending more money to send expensive sample ballots and voter guides to disinterested people who will just toss them into the garbage. Expanding mail ballots does seem to encourage older voters to cast a ballot as they don’t have to wander into strange neighborhoods to find their polling places. But the increase in mail ballots in California has been accompanied by a drop in actual voter turnout.

Give Alex Padilla credit for at least trying to address declining voter participation, even if his solutions aren’t likely to increase turnout. But what he really needs to do is revamp his campaign finance reporting website; California has one of the least effective in the nation. Rather than further burdening county election officials with the new motor voter scheme, California should be focused on improving public disclosure of campaign money.

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