Why Does Nobody Want to Vote in L.A.?

It seems Los Angeles County is testing the old philosophical question: What if they gave an election and nobody came? The most populous county in the state had the lowest percentage turnout in last November’s election.

While 42 percent of state voters turned out for the general election, Los Angeles County turnout was only 31 percent. The last mayoral city election in Los Angeles saw a turnout of a mere 23 percent.

The California Senate and Assembly election committees are chaired, respectively, by Sen. Ben Allen, D-Santa Monica, and Assemblyman Sebastian Ridley-Thomas, D-Culver City. The chairs called a joint oversight committee hearing on Feb. 20 to look for the reasons and solutions of the extremely low turnout in Los Angeles County. YouTube here.

The answer just might be a feeling of powerlessness among voters.

Loyola Law professor Jessica Levinson told the committee the low turnout in Los Angeles elections could be a case of voter apathy. Los Angeles is not a political town, she said. Everyone knows when the Super Bowl and the Oscars occur, but they don’t know when an election happens.

Many suggestions were made at the hearing on why there was a low voter turnout:

  • Voters believe their vote doesn’t matter;
  • The size of the county takes away the personalization of politics;
  • Lack of civic education in the schools;
  • Frequency of elections;
  • Lack of an interesting ballot;
  • Demographics in which the large minority populations which make up much of Los Angeles County’s potential voters have a history of not voting.

Major obstacles

All those items contribute to the low voter turnout. But are there really major obstacles to prevent voters from coming out if they cared to?

Some of those testifying to the committee seemed to think so. Common Cause’s Kathay Feng said the progressives who set up the rules for stand-alone local elections not only wanted a focus on local government, but they were also racist. They didn’t want certain people to vote and they were successful by setting up elections in off years.

Feng, who serves on the committee to move the Los Angeles city elections to coincide with national elections, a measure which will appear on the city ballot in March, said the convenience to the voters of combining elections will bump up the voting totals by as much as a third.

Still, Raphael Sonenshein, executive director of the Pat Brown Institute at Cal State, Los Angeles, may have touched on the reason citizens don’t engage in local elections. He argued that people believe the only election that really leads to change is the presidential election.

If that is so, then many of the suggestions made to increase the vote will probably only do so on the margins.

Change agents

Even if voting is made as convenient as possible — as Jessica Levinson suggested the time might come when everyone can simply vote by pressing some button on their iPhone — an important question remains: Do voters think those votes for local candidates create change?

Do citizens think they have the power through their votes to alter the direction of government? Or do they believe the institutions are so controlled and manipulated by insiders that voting is pointless?

There were higher turnouts in the past when it was arguably more inconvenient to vote.

The key to bringing voters to the polls, rather than constantly devising new systems to make it easier to vote, is for the voters to see themselves as important participants in governing.

Originally published by Fox and Hounds Daily

Why Not Let People Vote For Whomever They Want?

What would it take to reverse the trend of voter turnout? The real answers to that question – partisan local elections, a reversal of the top two disaster (and the resulting voter confusion, expensive campaign nastiness, and party weakness), elections on weekends, loosening all the constitutional rules that take issues off the table – are considered politically unrealistic. In part because reformers supported reforms that discourage voting, and being a reformer means never having to say you were wrong.

Since this is California, you’ve probably got to start with a small step. So here it is: Restore to voters the power to vote for whomever they choose.

Didn’t know that that power had been taken away from you? It was – back in 2012 when a law, designed to implement top two, abolished write-in voting on the November ballot for partisan offices (president being the exception). The change didn’t get much attention at the time, but it eliminated one more reason for people to vote. There never were a lot of write-ins, but we’re told that every vote counts. And every vote counts more when so few people are voting.

Scrapping write-ins eliminated a California political tradition. As Richard Winger of Ballot Access News pointed out in an email, Californians elected a write-in candidate to Congress three times in a general election:  1930 (won by the son of a Sacramento Congressman who died in office), 1946 (when William Knowland won the last couple months of Hiram Johnson’s last U.S. Senate term), 1982 (Ron Packard).  In eliminating write-ins, California went against the grain. According to Winger, California is the only state besides Louisiana that ever had write-ins and abolished them.  There are four states that have never had write-ins:  Nevada, South Dakota, Hawaii, and Oklahoma.

Why should we bring write-ins back? For reasons of democracy and engagement. Minor parties that have been shut out of November elections by top two would have an incentive to campaign, and bring voters to the polls, since they’d have the write-in option. Write-ins also provide a way to make sure that voters of a major party aren’t shut out when two candidates of the same party advance in the top two. (Write-ins also could serve as a check on the crazy first-round election results that top two sometimes produces.)

There’s an ongoing legal challenge to the top two alleging that it violates the rights of voters who want to cast ballot for minor party candidates in November (a hearing is currently scheduled for Jan. 15 in the State Court of Appeals in San Francisco). But why wait for the courts? The legislature could act to restore choice on the ballot, and give at least a few more voters a reason to show up.

This article was originally published on Fox and Hounds Daily

Joe Mathews is a 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)

Top 10 Measures Likely to Appear on November 2016 California Ballot

The General Election ballot in 2016 is likely to have more statewide ballot measures on it than California voters have seen in a long time. The main reason for this is that the number of signatures needed in order to qualify a statutory measure or even a constitutional amendment have plummeted with the pathetically low turnout in last month’s election (the signature requirement is 5% of the number of people who voted in the last gubernatorial election).

To be specific, it previously took 504,760 valid signatures to place a statutory initiative on the ballot. It will now take less than 370,000. For a constitutional amendment, the number has dropped from 807,615 to less than 590,000. A couple of years ago, a law was signed that requires that all measures placed on the ballot by signature petitions must appear on the November–not the June–ballot.

Below are the top ten measures most likely to appear on the November, 2016 ballot:

PLASTIC GROCERY BAG BAN — In a naked profit grab supported by the California Grocers Association, the legislature passed and Governor Brown signed into law a bill that would ban single-use plastic grocery bags and would mandate that stores charge at least ten cents for every paper bag given to a customer. This paper bag fee puts hundreds of millions of dollars of profits straight into the pockets of grocery store owners. A coalition representing plastic bag manufacturers is currently gathering signatures to refer this bill to the voters.

MEDICAL MARIJUANA — In 1996, California voters passed a ballot measure legalizing medical marijuana. Now the push is on to put another measure before Golden State voters that would decriminalize recreational marijuana use and regulate it, much the same way that alcohol use is currently regulated. Similar measures have recently passed in a handful of other states, and advocates are already targeting California.

PROP. 30 EXTENSION — In 2012, at the behest of Governor Jerry Brown, California voters approved a significant increase in sales and income taxes in California. It was sold to voters as needed to fund California schools, although money from these tax increases has been spent much more broadly. It is virtually certain that a “renewal” of this tax hike package will be placed on the ballot by Governor Brown.

OIL SEVERANCE TAX — Billionaire former hedge fund manager Tom Steyer has, on many occasions, talked about his desire to see California impose an oil extraction tax — taxing oil companies on each barrel of oil extracted from the ground. Steyer calls the absence of such a tax in California a “loophole” that he thinks should be closed. Of course someone of Steyer’s means could easily hire the paid signature gatherers to put this on the November ballot.

TOBACCO TAX — Currently, California’s smokers pay 87 cents per pack of cigarettes in state taxes, ranking us 33rd in the country. The well-heeled California Medical Association announced this month that they are part of a coalition to seek a $2 per pack increase in the state’s tobacco tax. The number of packs of cigarettes sold in California has dropped from 1.4 billion back in 1990 down to around 870 million today.

COMMERCIAL PROPERTY TAX — California’s landmark property tax reform measure, Proposition 13, passed in 1978, limits reassessment of property values to when properties change ownership. Those seeking to increase state revenues are advocating placing what is called a “split roll tax” before the voters, which in essence would keep the tight restrictions on residential property taxation but really make it a lot easier to increase taxes on commercial properties.

BATHROOM BILL — In 2013 a law was signed, referred to as the transgendered bathroom bill, that would have allowed students to play on gender-segregated school sporting teams, or use bathrooms based on their gender identity rather than their biological gender. An attempt to refer this bill to voters fell short – barely. But the signatures gathered were well above what would be needed to place a measure on the ballot in 2016.

PENSION REFORM — Former San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed led a coalition of folks who were looking at putting potential significant public sector pension reforms on the ballot this year, but they ended up holding off for 2016. Both the lower signature threshold and the growing magnitude of the combined unfunded public employee pension liabilities at both the state and local level make it extremely likely that Reed puts this reform up in 2016.

MINIMUM WAGE — This last year saw multiple ballot measures pass around the country hiking the minimum wage. Liberal activists in California have been advocating for an increase in the minimum wage here. Actually our minimum wage here is about to jump to $10 from it’s current $9 — but there is thought that a hike up to $13 could find its way before voters if it isn’t just approved out the gate by the left-wing legislature.

GAY MARRIAGE — In 2008, by a 53%-47% margin, voters passed Proposition 8, which stated, “Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California.” Public opinion has shifted away from this definition in the last eight years and, while Prop. 8 was invalidated by the courts, look for gay rights activists to place something on the ballot next go-around to make sure that the people have a chance to state their collective opinion on same-sex marriage.

Yes, the 2016 ballot will keep voters busy and be a full-employment act for political consultants.

This article was originally published on Fox and Hounds Daily

Jon Fleischman is the Politics Editor of Breitbart California. A longtime participant, observer and chronicler of California politics, Jon is also the publisher at www.flashreport.org. His column appears weekly on this page. You can reach Jon at jon@flashreport.org.

Let’s Not Recount If Nobody Cares

 

Assemblyman Kevin Mullin has received a good bit of publicity for his proposals for automatic, state-funded recounts in the event of very close elections in statewide races.

He’s probably right to do this. In very close elections — and Mullin is targeting those with margins of one-tenth of one-percent – the case is strong for having recounts should be automatic and full. The current system, with candidates forced to fund the counting and able to cherry-pick, doesn’t work.

But I’d add one big caveat – and amendment – to Mullin’s bill:

A turnout quorum for a recount.

Or in other words, don’t count if no one cares.

That’s right. To trigger a recount in a close race, there ought to be some evidence that people actually care about the election. There are far too many offices for which people don’t know the candidates. And there are many elections when turnout is painfully low.

So how could a turnout quorum work? I’d suggest a simple test: if fewer than half of registered voters eligible to vote in an election fail to turnout, then there can be no recount. If the public doesn’t care enough to show up and choose who represents them in an office, why should we spend the money on a recount?

Turnout quorums have been used in other countries—but in a different way. If not enough people show up, the election result doesn’t count. That’s problematic, but tying turnout to recount makes much more sense.

This would be healthy, for a couple reasons. It might create a small incentive for campaigns in tight races to turn out voters (and to be less reluctant to keep down the other guy’s votes). But any such effect is likely to be small.

More important, it would stir productive controversy. A few close, low-turnout races that don’t get a recount might force some focus on the fact that we vote on too many offices and on ballots that are too long. Maybe controversy would stir reforms. Like eliminating elections for statewide offices other than governor and secretary of state.

Most of us vote on the basis of party anyway. No normal person can learn enough to make informed judgments about so many candidates. And when we don’t know or care about the candidates, there’s no reason for a recount.

This piece was originally posted on Fox and Hounds Daily

Joe Mathews is a 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)

The Upside of Low Voter Turnout

This election, your vote counted double.

“When it’s 50 % turnout, your voting power is doubled #math,” Paul Mitchell of Political Data Inc., the state’s top political data firm, tweeted on Election Day.

Increased voting power — it’s one of several upsides to the state’s record low turnout in this month’s gubernatorial election. With fewer than 75,000 ballots left to count statewide, turnout is expected to top out at 42 percent — the lowest for a general election in California’s history. Of the state’s 38 million residents, just 7.5 million registered voters cast their ballots. That comes out to one in five people deciding who will lead the largest state in the nation for the next four years.

California’s abyssal turnout rate demolished the previous record for worst turnout in a general election. In 2002, just 50.57 percent of registered voters chose between Republican businessman Bill Simon and then-Gov. Gray Davis, a Democrat.

It wasn’t unexpected. The June 2014 primary turnout of 25.2 percent set a new record for the lowest voter turnout for any statewide election in California; the previous low was 28.2 percent in June 2008.

The low turnout has inspired a round of news stories about how to improve civic participation. “Democracy works better as more people participate,” incoming Secretary of State Alex Padilla told the San Francisco Chronicle. “Excitement around the particular candidates drives much of the turnout, and that’s hard to legislate.”

KFBK recently asked, “What should California do about low voter turnout?”

The question presupposes low turnout is a problem in need of fixing. For starters, California’s voter turnout isn’t evenly distributed throughout the state. In tiny Sierra County, the second-least populous county in the state, 73 percent of registered voters cast their ballots in the Nov. 4 election. That’s more than double Los Angeles, the most populous county in the country, where 31 percent of registered voters participated. Another half-dozen counties — Nevada, Mariposa, Amador, Alpine, Plumas and Marin — all had turnout of 60 percent or more.

2016: Bumper year for ballot measures

In addition to increased voting power for high-propensity voters, the state’s record-low turnout in 2014 will lead to a bumper year for ballot measures in 2016.

“If voters were a bit underwhelmed by the measures on the California ballot … just wait for the 2016 election,” wrote Joel Fox, publisher of Fox and Hounds Daily, one of the state’s top business and political websites. “Already there is talk of potential initiatives on legalizing recreational marijuana, public pension reform, minimum wage increases and a basket full of tax hikes. The machinations around the tax issues could be most compelling just because so many are being considered.”

recent memo from a top-notch public affairs firm based in Sacramento made the case that 2016 could break records for the most number of ballot measures on a single ballot.

“The historically low turnout in the 2014 general election will dramatically lower the number of signatures required to qualify ballot initiatives in 2016,” wrote Rick Claussen, Ned Wigglesworth and Aaron McLear of Redwood Pacific Public Affairs. “But the lower signature threshold and extended collection window very likely will make qualifying initiatives far less expensive than ever before, potentially producing a very long ballot in 2016.”

The threshold for qualifying a ballot measure is based on participation in the previous gubernatorial election. Initiative statutes require valid signatures from at least 5 percent of the total votes cast for governor at the last gubernatorial election, while initiative constitutional amendments require at least 8 percent. Based on current figures, that would lower the signature requirement from 504,760 valid signatures to 365,000.

In other words, just 2 percent of registered voters can get a measure on the ballot — or less than 1 percent of residents in the state.

As CalWatchdog.com’s Chris Reed argued, “That is good news for those considering taking on public employee unions in 2016 with ballot measures putting limits on government pensions or scrapping state laws allowing teachers to receive lifetime tenure after less than two years on the job.”

The Marijuana Policy Project, which is pushing for the legalization of marijuana throughout the country, is optimistic about California in 2016.

“This year’s election was a large step forward, but the 2016 election will be a huge leap toward ending marijuana prohibition in this country once and for all,” Rob Kampia, the organization’s executive director, said in a statement after the election.

Redwood Pacific’s memo outlined other changes to the initiative process that will alter the 2016 political landscape. Under a law passed in 2011, all ballot measures arising from signatures are considered on the general election ballot. Additionally, in 2014, the legislature approved Senate Bill 1253, which will extend the signature gathering period by an extra month, add a public review period for title and summary, and require a legislative informational hearing when proponents collect 25 percent of the necessary signatures.

“For a relatively small investment, a proponent can force a legislative hearing on their initiative,” McLear told CalWatchdog.com.

The low threshold won’t last forever. As KQED’s John Myers recently pointed out, “The new low bar for initiatives will last only for two election cycles.”

Probolsky Research: “Surprises may be the norm”

It’s no coincidence that California’s record-low turnout was matched by a record number of legislative upsets. An incumbent Democratic state lawmaker hadn’t lost reelection in 20 years. This year, four incumbents lost reelection, including Assemblyman Raul Bocanegra’s shocking defeat to long-shot Democrat Patty Lopez.

One of California’s top polling firms expects more upsets, courtesy of low turnout and the Top Two elections system.

“Surprises may be the norm,” said Justin Wallin, COO/CMO of Probolsky Research. “Voter behavior is more likely to mimic what we have seen with our jungle primaries, wherein candidates in large fields of contestants can’t rely so heavily on their ballot language.”

Wallin believes candidates need to “ensure that voters arrive at the ballot box intending to vote for them, otherwise they are likely to just get lost in the crowd.”

This article was originally published on CalWatchdog.com

CARTOON — Terrifying Costume: The Low Information Voter

Low info voter

David Fitzsimmons, The Arizona Star