Why are turnouts so low in these special elections to fill empty Assembly and state Senate seats?

Because Californians aren’t honest with themselves.

We tell ourselves that, in election contests, we vote for the person. But the fact is we rarely have any idea who the person we vote for is. That’s especially true in legislative elections. Legislative candidates in California must represent huge districts, with far too many people to reach. And the media provides little or no coverage of these contests.

If we were being honest with ourselves, Californians would recognize that for all our illusions of independents, we are party animals.

Which is to say: we vote for the party not the person. If you don’t believe the data that shows this to be overwhelming true, try this experiment. Ask yourself (or a person you meet) to give you the first and last name, and any other distinguishing personal details, of the person you voted for last year for Assembly. (Few people will be able to answer this question). Then ask if you know the party of the person you vote for last year for Assembly. (Most people will remember that much).

In this insight lies the solution to the problem of low-turnout special elections: letting people vote for the party.

Specifically, California should consider using party lists. That is to say, let political parties produce list of candidates for each district. Under the misbegotten top two non-primary “primary” system we have now (another bit of Californian political dishonesty is that we say we have primaries in the state even though we abolished them in 2010), that would mean letting the parties list its candidates in order of preference on the first round ballot. You’d vote for the party, and not the person, which is what you do already.

Those parties that finish in the top two would advance to the second round of balloting. The list could be cut to three people at this point. The top person on the list of the winning party would serve in the legislature. The second and third choices of that party would be alternates – who could quickly take the place of the top candidate if that person quits, is removed from office, or dies.

Party lists have other advantages, of course. They would revive California’s badly weakened political parties – which would in turn return the wonders of politics, particularly local politics, and political engagement to the Golden State.

Party lists would work much better if the state moved, as it should, to multi-member districts and proportional voting. With, say, a 20 member district, a party could list its 20 choices in order. If that party won, say, 12 of the seats, the first 12 people on its list would take office. Those remaining on the list would serve as alternates.

California elites would say this is too complicated and wouldn’t work here. But our current elections aren’t working. Indeed, no one is showing up. Can’t we level with ourselves and recognize that we need real change?