A Tale of Two California Elections

Joe Mathews
Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)

It’s the best of California elections. It’s the worst of California elections. 

It’s never been easier to vote in California. It’s never been harder to figure out how to vote.

 These March elections represent the culmination of years of herculean efforts by state and local officials to boost the state’s historically low voter turnouts, by making voting more convenient. So now you can register on line. You also can register at any time, including on election day. If you vote in person, you no longer have to find one particular precinct; this year, in 15 counties, you can go to any of hundreds of vote centers, that are open for several days before the election.  

If you don’t feel like going out, it’s easy to vote by mail. In many counties, you don’t have to request a mail ballot—they automatically send you one. And you no longer have to mail your ballot in ahead of time. Just send it in by election day. 

If you’re Californian, be proud. While the rest of the world doubts democracy, California has become a bastion of greater participation. More Californians—beyond 20 million—are registered to vote than ever before.

Is this a great democratic state or what?

Unfortunately, the answer is: Or what.

Because this election is a failure to match our expansion of voting with informational infrastructure to help people choose. 

Today, California voters are more misinformed than ever. Newspapers are in decline. Most election races and ballot measures don’t get covered at all. Voters too often rely on nonsense from social media. The state’s Official Voter Information Guide doesn’t cover all the races on the ballot, and has significant omissions (like the fact that this March’s state school bond would lift local school debt limits and raise the risk of insolvency).

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 voting centers, a poll showed that more than 60 percent of voters don’t know about the changes. 

Why? Our state government and 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. 

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. 

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. But all the other races on your ballot—everything from state assembly and senate to city council—will be general elections. 

So 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 politicians like

Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, who make 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 careful in counting, California will be savaged by the media and political elites demanding to know, “What is taking so long?” 

There is little we can do to counter such lies. But we can construct new processes of deliberation and information—like a better ballot guide, or citizens’ juries to study ballot questions—to serve our growing population of voters.

Until we do, everyone may vote in California elections, but no one will know what they’re doing.

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.

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