Interesting elections bring out voters
In election after election, California officialdom has been frustrated by low levels of interest among eligible voters. Just when they were beginning to feel like they had tried almost everything, the obvious solutions to the problem appeared spontaneously:
Give eligible Californians exciting, meaningful contests and they will turn out. When they feel their votes matter, they will fill out ballots, either at home or in polling booths.
That’s why, instead of wringing hands and whining about irresponsible voters not performing their important duty, all of a sudden this spring state election officials are worried about seeing too many voters.
That’s the clear upshot of an appeal by Secretary of State Alex Padilla, California’s top election official, for more money to stage the June primary. In April, he warned of a turnout “surge” and asked Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature for an additional $32 million to pay for more and fatter election guides for the November election, plus added funds to help counties cope with an anticipated flood of voters both then and in June.
The two presidential nomination races have produced massive turnouts so far this year across the country, and Padilla realizes California will be the same — in fact it may see a higher percentage increase than anywhere else.
One reason is that in recent pre-Donald Trump, pre-Bernard Sanders days, there was little excitement or pizzazz in the state’s elections for 10 years, since Arnold Schwarzenegger’s last run for governor in 2006. Even then there wasn’t much of a contest, as Democratic rival Phil Angelides essentially got swamped.
Likewise, there was virtually no contest in 2014, when turnout dropped almost 25 percent from the presidential election voting levels of 2012. In that vote, Brown easily beat his Republican rival, Neel Kashkari, a former Federal Reserve banker who has since taken a new role in the national central bank. The extreme low 2014 turnout did two things, causing the number of signatures required for putting initiatives onto the ballot to drop by more than a quarter and pushing officialdom to consider desperate measures.
That low vote is behind a current plan to automatically register any U.S. citizen getting a drivers’ license as a voter. It also explains proposals to allow online voting, despite the hackable history of allegedly secure computer systems from credit cards to government records and national security secrets.
The real way to spur turnout isn’t anything risky like that. Rather, it’s to make elections meaningful. California legislators could begin by moving the state’s presidential primary up permanently to a slot just after New Hampshire. True, other states won’t like that, because candidates would have to spend time in California rather than the much smaller South Carolina or Minnesota or Tennessee, all among states that voted this year either in mid-February or early March.
It’s long been a situation of the tail wagging the dog, as for the last 44 years — since George McGovern used California to win the 1972 Democratic nomination — no California presidential vote has meant much, until this year’s.
The rare happenstance of no candidate being sufficiently appealing to seal a party nomination until the very last day of the primary season — if then — is the reason California’s vote suddenly emerged as important. That hadn’t happened in 44 years. So leave the state’s presidential primary in June and California will mostly likely wander another 40 years in the desert of irrelevancy.
Not every nominating season will be as exciting as this one: For one thing, the White House is about to be vacated by its incumbent resident, so both parties are nominating now. For another, unique personalities like Trump and Sanders don’t come along in every election cycle.
The implications of all this for routine elections around California are also clear. Match exciting candidates against each other and potential voters will become interested enough to become regular voters. Allow elections to be virtually uncontested, as many have been, and interest will wane. The same when voters get the sense that certain candidates appear to be anointed.
The bottom line: When voters feel their ballots matter, they will make casting them a priority. When they don’t feel that way, voters won’t bother.