In attempting to increase voter turnout, California officials nibble around the edges of reform, while consistently missing the forest for the trees. The impending arrival of Vote Centers is the latest example.

Vote Centers are meant to make it easier to vote — but would also represent a major shift in how we vote. Under SB 450 — the Vote Center legislation passed in 2016 — neighborhood-based, precinct voting on Election Day – and the experience of voting with your neighbors, would be eliminated. In its place, every voter would receive a ballot in the mail which they could return by mail or cast in person at strategically located drop boxes, starting 28 days before and up through Election Day. Or voters can cast their ballots in person at any of multiple Vote Centers dispersed around the county, starting ten days beforehand and running through Election Day.

While this program is optional and not mandatory for counties, Madera, Napa, Nevada, Sacramento and San Mateo counties will already use it in 2018. Many California counties also suffer from out-of-date voting equipment, and there are state matching funds in the 2018 state budget to support development of Vote Centers that would address this.

Wrong Incentive

The problem with this impeding major shift is that we are incentivizing people to vote before campaigns have concluded, without exploring more simple and direct ways of increasing voter turnout on Election Day.

Why is it hard for many people to vote on Election Day? Because it’s a work day. How do we solve that? We can make primary and general election days state holidays, and keep the polls open til 11:59pm for people who still have to work those days. It’s really not that complicated. Then we can see what voter turnout would be, when most people have Election Day free. Then we can design complementary systems around that reality, instead of enacting radical change today based upon incomplete information.

This isn’t just theoretical. There are meaningful downsides to promoting voting before campaigns have concluded. The most obvious is that it limits the ability of voters, candidates and the media to respond to developing campaign issues and information. If something important occurs and you’ve already voted, you are out of luck. So are the candidate and media, who no longer can to respond to you in time.

Early voting also favors candidates (especially incumbents) with early big money – especially to pay for expensive direct mailers to reach early voters – compared to candidates whose grassroots campaigns develop over time. Early voting can even depress door-to-door campaigning by making it less effective, because many voters reached by door-knockers will already have voted.

Do we really want to pit voter turnout vs. grassroots politics and an informed and empowered electorate?

Reason to Vote

Then there is having a reason to vote. Under California’s single-seat, winner-take-all district elections for state and federal legislative office, most voters are forced into a narrow range of general election choices; and even then, only one ‘side’ gets representation, and the rest are left with nothing. Yet we are surprised that voter turnout is low, and that the U.S. trails most developed countries in voter turnout.

California’s failed (Only) Top Two experiment has only made things worse, exaggerating the lack of choice inherent in single-seat, winner-take-all elections by limiting voters to only two general election choices — sometimes from the same party, and often a random choice resulting from ‘too many’ primary election candidates splitting the primary election vote. This has led to all time low voter turnout under Top Two, in both primary and general elections.

Instead of responding to the lack of choice (and false majorities) of the current single-seat, winner-take-all system, California officials are trying to cosmetically prop it up with Vote Centers, along with increased vote-by-mail options, same day voter registration and pre-registration of 16-year and 17-year olds. All of these well-intended reforms still funnel voters through the same limited turnstiles, and don’t address the all-important role of voter motivation.

Elections by Proportional Representation

Most developed countries with higher voter turnout than the United States use elections from multi-seat districts by proportional representation, where voters win representation in proportion to their numbers, and many more voters get a seat at the table. In the U.S. we’ve seen how limited choices and lesser-of-evilism can only go so far to motive voters. Under proportional representation elections, more voters are able to help elect someone who truly represents their views, so more voters are motivated to vote.

Here in California, we have the worst per-capita representation for state legislature in the United States. The number of California legislators was set in 1879 when the state had 865,000 people. Today California has almost 40 million, yet the size of its legislature has never been increased.

A substantially larger state legislature elected by proportional representation could give many more Californians a reason to vote, leading to a representative multi-party democracy that would fit the diversity of our state. Making the state legislature unicameral would make it even easier to be proportional, with all seats within a single house. Combined with Election Day state holidays, this could lead to higher voter turnout, a better informed and empowered electorate, and a more representative democracy for California.