Can California be optimistic and pessimistic at the same time?

150 150 Ed Coghlan

(photo credit: Vox Efx/flickr)

So how did your day go on Wednesday?

Mine started uniquely. I was thinking not about my beloved 49ers and Giants, but about how to frame a discussion on how we can improve voter participation in California.

Why, you might legitimately wonder, was I pondering a topic to esoteric to many in this state?

Because the state of California–in which I was born before Jerry Brown’s dad was Governor–used to define democracy in this country.

Now, depending on who you talk to, we are either 45th or 48th in voter participation.

To put it bluntly, that’s atrocious.

So that very same morning, I was flying from Burbank to Sacramento to begin a series of interviews with candidates for California Secretary of State  (the state’s chief election official), to discuss how we increase voter participation and electoral transparency in the state.

I arrived at the gate in the Burbank airport and I noticed young people. A lot of them, mostly noisy, excited teenagers.

“This is going to be a long flight,” I thought at first.

But I was wrong.

The flight was full. The bags of peanuts were flowing. I happened to sit next to one of the rambunctious teens, a junior at Moorpark High School (whose name I did not get) who was joining hundreds of other young Californians as part of a YMCA youth governance event.

She and her peers were going to roleplay. Some would be Assembly and Senate members, some lobbyists and other still would pose as journalists.

She was motivated to learn and excited about what the next 5 days in Sacramento would hold for her.

When she became bored with me, she worked her on AP Calculus. Clearly I can ratchet up the boredom with the best of them if I can drive a young woman to calculus.

But I digress.

Throughout the experience on the plane, I was taken back to a conversation that I had with Mindy Romero of UC Davis’ California Civic Engagement Project, a statewide resource for civic engagement research. Mindy, Caroline Vance-Bruister (who directs California Forward’s Project for Public Accountability) and I had lunch recently in Davis and talked about voter engagement.

Mindy Romero’s view wasn’t as optimistic as my outlook after my inspiring flight.

Mindy told us how her data shows that the California electorate will be even more disengaged than it is now. Why? For one, the growth of the youth vote who historically vote less often than the gray-hair demo. Also, there’s a spike in those abandoning all party affiliation (or as they’re known in California, NPPs for “no party preference”) who are inoculated from “voter education” because the political parties and campaigns focus more on mobilizing and informing those in their ranks.

As Romero says, “those voters are information poor,” meaning they have to depend on the Secretary of State voter guide. Which, based on a quick straw poll of friends and family, no one actually reads. Throw mailers into that category as well.

Another noteworthy stat: Young Asians and Latinos are the fastest growing demographics in the state. Despite how both major parties are heavily courting  these expanding voting blocs, each has a high rate of NPP registrations.

The result?

Unaffiliated voters apparently don’t vote as much as Democrats and Republicans. So we have less NPPs and less young people heading to the polls, which doesn’t bode well for how representative elected officials actually are of the people they represent.

Romero believes (and common sense seems to agree) that if we want to increase voter participation, we have to work at it.

So, you might ask, why is California Forward worried about this?

We’ll answer a question with a question: How can this state get better if we aren’t involving more people in deciding who represents us and how we make decisions? This is one focus of our work.

The purpose for my flight that began this piece was to interview three secretary of state candidates. Each had a number of theories as to why Californians aren’t voting. We are going to interview all six candidates and share their thoughts right here about how to increase voter participation later this month. But if you prefer to hear them discuss their platforms in person, the ACLU of California is hosting a free candidate forum with all six men vying to become California’s top election official on March 3 in Los Angeles. To register for the CA Fwd co-sponsored event click here.

We’ve also been talking with editorial boards at major California newspaper chains around the state. They too are scratching their heads as to why more of us aren’t voting.

That’s why we are so involved with the Future of California Elections (FOCE), a coalition of organizations that is dedicated to increasing participation in California elections.

The annual meeting is also on March 3 in Los Angeles. Election officials from all around the state, voter advocates, researchers and policymakers will talk about the myriad of issues that must be solved in order to increase voter participation in California, from modernizing voter technology to putting language in voter guides that anyone, no matter their native tongue, can understand.

The conversation I had on my flight left me hopeful for our state’s future, but that was just a small sample of future voters. It’s the work we are doing here and with the FOCE that should make those particular kids less of an anomaly and more the norm.


Ed Coghlan

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