The recently completed election in California was more than just a wave election.  It was a watershed in a trend that has been building for the past several decades; the exit of the informed and interested voter.

Sure, there was a lot of political discussion.  Nonstop chatter on the cable news shows.  Tons of political ads blasting at viewers.  Mail pieces filling the mailbox.  At the end of the day, not much of a change, despite ample evidence that the public has little confidence in their elected leaders.  The light turnout is blamed on a lack of competitive races but is this a self fulfilling prophecy?

Look at the results of this last election here in California.  There were 100 state legislative seats up for election – the entire Assembly of 80 members and half the Senate’s 40 members.  Of those ‘competitions’ – as we used to think of elections – about 10 of them were in play between two reasonably competitive candidates.  The rest were either cakewalks or exhibited no opposition to speak of.  A total of only about 4 million votes were tallied for these legislative races.  This, for a legislative body more than a majority of citizens feels is dysfunctional. 

The turnout was only slightly better in the statewide positions and propositions..  Only about 5 million of the approximately 18 million registered voters cast votes for the statewide races and propositions despite a couple of contests – for Secretary of State and Controller – that were thought to be mildly competitive.

Look at the Congressional race in the 52nd District between Rep. Scott Peters and former Mayoral candidate Carl DeMaio.  Despite an avalanche of advertising, a multitude of news articles and armies of workers trying to gin up the vote, fewer than 200,000 total votes were cast in a district of almost 700,000 people and likely over 500,000 eligible potential voters.  Did voters consciously turn off or did they just not care?

Should we be concerned that so few registered voters showed enough interest to cast a ballot?  Just when you realize that this is a dangerously low number of interested citizens, we should remind ourselves that this percentage is only of REGISTERED voters.  There are vast numbers of people – the estimate is north of 6 million people – who are eligible to vote but for one reason or another don’t even bother to register.

This analysis doesn’t even begin to address whether those who did vote knew who or what they were voting for.  A good many of these voters were the so-called ‘uninformed voters’ pundits talk about.  I spoke to several in my circle who told me they knew very little about most of the candidates for state elective office.  Why are these voters uninformed?

It is not as if it is unreasonably difficult to get informed.  Plenty of resources exist, especially with the Internet and 24 hours of news.  With so many sources of information, why do people seem less informed and even less interested in politics these days?

I think the answer lies in motivation.  They just aren’t motivated to pay attention to politics or to vote because they feel that to do so is neither relevant nor brings any benefit to their lives.  They hear all the ads, and recognize that the content is more about smearing the opposition than delivering a point of view on relevant issues. They know instinctively that the people who pay for these ads – the special interests and wealthy individuals and businesses – have far more sway over policy than voters ever will.  In many districts and in several of the statewide races they know that certain candidates are so overwhelmingly favored – usually due to a distinct fundraising advantage – that the result is preordained.

Plenty of people are well-informed about the standings for professional football or what Kim Kardashian is wearing these days.  Why?  Because it’s relevant and beneficial. It’s something they can discuss with their friends and family, something to help them fit in socially, something in which to invest emotion and energy. . They can appear knowledgeable in these discussions of sports and fashion.  There is therefore a clear benefit to get informed and/or get involved on those subjects.

The political world holds less and less importance to the average citizen in each passing election.  Why?  No relevance, no benefit. They feel powerless, so voting has no relevance to them.  Why get informed if your opinion doesn’t matter?  Why register if your vote is meaningless?  What’s the benefit? Why even vote if elections are decided on who raises the most funds or caters to the most special interests? There is no benefit to the voter in those outcomes.

This leads to another question – is this lack of participation a bad thing?  Some may argue that as long as there is a cadre of informed voters who participate, it is disruptive and potentially harmful for a group of uninformed participants to muddy the process.  Is that what we want?  Is that what makes our democracy more powerful?

This would surely be news to the Founders.  They sought independence from a King who wielded power arbitrarily.  They envisioned an active democracy that involved citizens exercising an informed power at the voting booth.  Madison and Jefferson didn’t see political activity as a business; they regarded it as a sacred duty of a free people.

They were correct.  Freedom isn’t free.  The price of a lack of informed involvement on the part of the electorate is a government that imposes its will without popular support.  It is likely a government ruled by corruption and cronyism, much as we see in less developed nations or banana republics.   While the United States is considered far removed from that category, we are a country with serious problems and in need of reform in many areas, reform that is potentially stifled by special interests funders committed to preserving a status quo from which they benefit.

The solution to enticing voters to participate again is to make votes count.  You do that by making elections local; by having people they know and trust competing. The solution is to make electoral districts so local – so tiny- that individual votes are competed for on a personal level.  When elections are tiny in size, massive TV campaigns will be a thing of the past. Any local candidate who is known and trusted can run; no party machine needed. They’ll be elected on their character and their position on local issues, not on fundraising or their TV campaigns.

The Neighborhood Legislature is the reform that California needs to succeed in the future.  This revolutionary reform makes all legislative districts so tiny that they are about issues and character, not how much money is raised.  In addition, when districts are as tiny as 2000-5000 households, every vote will count and participation will be greatly enhanced.

Of course, this vastly increases the number of districts so the Neighborhood Legislature  adopts the proven organizational solution of  Working Committees that do the legislative work in Sacramento.  These Working Committees are exactly the same size as the current legislature and are selected annually by the Neighborhood Representatives elected in each neighborhood district.

The electoral system must change, otherwise California democracy will die.  The present system is clearly not generating adequate involvement of California voters.  As is said often, insanity is repeating the same things, expecting a different result.  Let’s stop doing that. The Neighborhood Legislature reform puts voters back in control; this is the change that is needed to bring voters back into the process.