In our introduction of the Black Bart Award we note that it could go to someone or something that performed a heroic act OR performed a dastardly deed. My suggested nominees fall to the Dark Side of California’s political world this year.
In light of the negative publicity generated by three state senators being accused of crimes, the institution of the state senate was shaken to its core. Senator Ron Calderon stood accused of accepting bribes to put forth a bill for a moneyed interest who turned out to be an FBI agent. Senator Rod Wright was convicted of committing fraud by living someplace other than his district. But, none of the revelations was more spectacular than the arrest of Senator Leland Yee accused of accepting bribes and playing middleman in a gunrunning operation.
Yee’s alleged actions sent the senate in a tailspin and focused attention on that body senators would rather live without. Senators had to deal with the issue of suspending fellow members with pay before they could be expelled. Public confidence in government was threatened – or lack of confidence confirmed – depending on an individual’s view of government before the revelations. But while the spectacular accusations had time in the public’s eye – something that will be back when Senators Calderon and Yee face trial dates – the misdeeds of the senators play second fiddle in the Dark Side Band to a group that has a greater long-term affect on the body politic – California’s non-voters.
Staying away from the polls (or in this modern age, ignoring mail-in ballots) was the true story of both the June and November elections.
About 73% of California’s eligible voters are registered to vote. However, in November only about 41% of those registered voters actually showed up to vote. While some dismiss the small turnout to a boring election, ballot measures that drummed up little interest or candidate races that seemed decided well before Election Day, the low turnout is a sign of lack of interest in public affairs, not good in a democratic society that requires the people to make decisions.
The low percentage of registered voters casting a ballot shattered the record by a landslide. According to the Secretary of State’s history of General Election turnout for regularly scheduled elections, the next lowest percentage vote was 50.5% in 2002.
In fact the low turnout could well annoy or fascinate those who do vote in the coming general elections, directly involving them in policy-making decisions. Because the rules to place initiative measures on the ballot, the record low turnout makes it easier to gather the necessary signatures. For a constitutional amendment, 8% of those voting in the gubernatorial election are needed to qualify a measure. The signature requirement for the 2016 and 2018 elections is now set at approximately 586,000. For a statute, the necessary signature count in round figures is now 366,000. Compare to the previously mandated signature counts of 807,615 needed for a constitutional amendment and 504,760 needed for a statute.
Voters are the key to our democracy. When so many refuse to partake that affects the policy decisions in the state and the direction the state moves. For better or worse — let’s stipulate: For Worse — non-voters had great impact on California policy in this and future elections. I nominate the non-voters for this year’s Black Bart Award.