The June 5th primary was an election of “firsts” for California. Both the top two primary and new, citizens-inspired redistricting were implemented for the first time since their passage and the growing No-Party-Preference voter was watched closely as a handful of independent candidates played their hands.
In a special post-election panel, the CA Fwd Radio Show delved into these issues with Barbara O’Connor, professor emeritus of communications studies at C-S-U Sacramento; Josh Richman, political reporter for the Bay Area News Group; and Rachel Michelin, C-E-O and executive director of California Women Lead.
Only two propositions were on the June 5 ballot, nothing compared to the 15-20 that may make it onto the ballot in November.
Prop 28 passed easily, but O’Connor said it is only a partial solution to the challenge of getting it right on term limits to keep special interest influence to a minimum.
“There are two types of people who voted for this – people who hate government and thought they were shortening the terms, and then people who understand that it might help by allowing people to serve all 12 years in one house and build up some extra seasoned seniority and friends, so you get more deal-making and less polarization,” O’Connor said.
As for Prop 29, panelists agreed that it was a case study in how special interest money can influence an election, with big tobacco shelling out for ads to defeat the cigarette tax proposal.
Prop 29 ads never mentioned the word tobacco,” Richman said. “It was a cigarette tax. All you heard was ‘taxes are going up.’ People reacted very viscerally to that without knowing that if they don’t smoke, they wouldn’t be paying the tax.”
However, O’Connor said there was also voter concern about “the lack of clarity over how much would actually go to cancer research. For the thinking voter who thinks things through, that made a difference.”
A larger issue, said Michelin, is that voters are not taking the time to really study what’s on the ballot anymore.
“People decide their vote based on a 30 second TV ad. They don’t spend the time to really research the effects (a proposition) is going to have long-term on government,” she said.
Richman said his job is to get the information out there for voters, but they need to engage. “People are interested but feel powerless. It’s very hard to motivate people to get out and exercise their vote in a meaningful way.”
Education is important, but voters do have a responsibility.
“Part of good government is the responsibility of the voter to take the time on their own to figure out on their own – not based on a mail piece, TV commercial, or radio ad – what they think is in the best interest of our state,” Michelin said. “That’s become harder and harder to do as these campaigns spend more and more money.”
The June 5 primary saw the lowest voter turnout in California history, which indicates just how ineffectual Californians feel.
“People are frustrated and angry. They don’t see any hope,” Michelin said. “They’re not excited. So, we really try to educate them that you have to be part of the solution. Being part of the solution at a minimum is making sure you cast a vote.”
But, “you can make a difference,” she said. Many races are decided by just a few dozen votes. “Whether that pot hole in front of your house is going to get fixed – that’s the city council. You really do need to pay attention to who these local folks are, not only because they affect your everyday life, but because that is the training ground for folks to move to higher office.”
The lead up to November
Voter turnout is expected to be larger come November, thanks to a high profile presidential election. But, panelists voiced concerns that voters may tune out the rest of the ballot, because it is expected to be so long and convoluted.
“Some of the races are going to be really confounding to voters,” said O’Connor. “The ads are going to be horrible – the number of propositions, the presidential Armageddon campaign, the hotly contested same-party races.”
Not only will there be a lot of ads, but those creating the ads are more sophisticated than ever.
“Folks are getting overwhelmed,” Michelin said. “My fear going into November, with (so many) initiatives on the ballot, is that people are either just not going to vote, or they’re just going to vote no, no, no, no, no. And, that’s going to hurt, because there are some initiatives that could lead to some good reforms.”
Elections Reforms: Top Two & Citizens Redistricting
There was much anticipation about how Top Two Primary and the new citizens redistricting maps would impact the June 5 election, but the panel agreed that it will take a few election cycles to really see how these democracy reforms have changed the landscape.
“Redistricting and top-two will mirror how voters are feeling about conventional parties over the next five or six years” and give people more of a voice,” O’Connor said. But, June 5th was just “a first step to making real political reform in California.”
These reforms may give more of a voice to those who have abandoned the major parties in favor of No-Party-Preference, and Richman thinks politicians will eventually have to respond. “Both parties are very mindful of the fact that ultimately they need to appeal to the (no party preference voter) in some way.”
One piece of the puzzle is financing. Right now, the two major parties control much of the money doled out at election time, and major donors are still thinking in these terms. Michelin believes those donors will begin to see the benefits of supporting candidates that appeal to those in the growing No-Party Preference category.
Once these donors understand “that No Party Preference and the open primary are an opportunity to really change things up in Sacramento and have them support candidates financially, that’s a whole other type of education that will take a few cycles to play out.”
As for how top two might reverberate in November, there is some concern that instead of having meaningful discussions on issues, candidates may take the low road.
“If you’re starting out with the same base as your opponent, how do you attract the additional voters you need to get a margin of victory?” asked Richman. “Do they actually engage directly on issues and stick to substantive campaigns, or is the temptation there to make it a very personal and dirty campaign where you’re more concerned with painting your opponent as an extremist, who’s out of touch with those moderates and independent voters?”
Through it all, voters must sift through the information and remember that their voice matters.
“If you want to see change, the change really starts with your vote,” said Michelin. “You have one day when you can have a huge impact. You choose to let other folks make that decision when you choose not to vote.”