I feel sorry for the people who handle our elections in California – our county clerks and the Secretary of State. They have spent years, even decades, making smart changes to make it easier for people to vote.
And they’re about to do it again, with the thoughtful legislation known as SB 450. It would move us more to mail voting and early voting, and away from polling places. And it would give counties more room to experiment. (If it allowed for Internet voting, it’d be close to perfect. It’s a smart approach, given the miserably low levels of funding for our elections.
But will make much difference? No. Because the problem with voting in California isn’t that the process of voting itself is so difficult.
It’s all the stuff that is actually on the ballot—and the fact that we don’t really have the infrastructure or culture, especially media culture, to handle all the things we’re asked to decide. And clerks and Alex Padilla aren’t really in position to do much about that.
In terms of the choices on the ballot, California elections are organized to ask voters to do two things that we have no real way of being any good at it: voting on individual candidates about whom we know very little, and voting on many long and complicated ballot measures that we don’t have time to understand.
And while the election administrators work to make the process easier, we’ve done nothing but make these two impossible tasks harder. Gov. Jerry Brown decided to load all the ballot initiatives onto November; he also ran low-profile campaigns that reduced turnout and thus made it easier to qualify measures for the ballot.
And our good government reform community has labeled any efforts to deal with all the candidate choices must make – for too many statewide offices, for both senate and assembly members, for Congress, for judges, for various local officials – as unrealistic. Instead, they want to expand mass ignorance—they want even more people voting about people they know little about for offices whose duties they don’t know.
And they’ve merely tinkered at the edges of ballot initiative reform.
There are things that could be done about this, and they’re hardly radical. We could vote for parties – like people in countries all over the world – through party lists, rather than have to follow all these individual races. (Such proportional representation party votes also would create a more representative group of elected officials). So you’d choose a party—not a sea of different candidates. Party affiliation, of course, is how most of us make our decisions these days—so why not have a system that reflects that?
You could separate ballot measure elections from candidate elections – as some other countries do – and make sure we’re never voting for more than 2 or 3 measures at a time. That would give media and citizens a better chance to educate themselves on the measures upon which they’re voting.
And most important, we could build more of a public infrastructure to support voters as they make decisions. That means finding ways to both pressure and subsidize media to do their jobs around elections providing more coverage, more debates, around what’s at stake. It probably means having government offices and people who are available to voters – by phone, by Internet, to answer their questions.
It also means creating ways for people to bring their own ideas forward on the ballot. Right now, only rich people and interest get to offer questions to voters; there is no path for anyone with a good idea to get that idea before voters, based on the quality of their idea. (There have been ideas in recent years for commissions or committees that could do that, but no one has).
And most of all, it means a major renewal of California’s broken constitution. So much is already locked in place already that voters, through supporting a party or a candidate, cannot change all that much, especially in how their schools are funded, or how they are taxed.
The overwhelming majority of Californians have figured out that their votes don’t matter, and they are, quite rationally, choosing not to vote. The way to address that problem is not to make voting easier; it’s to make voting matter.