Let’s Stick to One Election at a Time

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)

In many ways, California’s March elections constituted a success. But there are still complaints about long lines and voter confusion.

 So if reforms must be made in our elections, let me suggest making thing simpler.

 Why don’t we limit ourselves to one election at a time?

 Right now, our elections involve so many elections. Take March. We had one election that was a presidential primary. We also had a general election for statewide office. We had a number of different local elections in various jurisdictions. And then we had vote on state and local ballot measures—which aren’t really elections but rather lawmaking, by voters.

 Ballot measures votes should be separate completely from candidate elections, as is the case in Switzerland and a few other places. The logic is that ballot measures aren’t elections, and that they involve complicated choices that require voters to focus.

 Primary and general elections shouldn’t be confined. If we’re going to have a presidential primary, make that primary the only thing on the ballot. We could have voted on the various presidential contenders in March, and waited until June to do the first-round general election on state offices. 

Instead, many voter questions—particularly about which ballot to grab if you’re a non-partisan—were driven by the state putting the presidential primary together with state elections.

That might mean more election days, and less turnout on each election day. But turnout really should be measure by cycle, not by a particular election. I suspect that just as many Californians would vote in the course of an election year if our elections were separated from each other; we’d just have fewer voters in each separate election.

 Small, separate elections also would be easier to run, and less confusing. Does that sound so bad?

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