Future of California Elections: The many facets of reform

150 150 Christopher Nelson

California must embrace innovation in its electoral process. (Photo Credit: Joe Philipson)

To many, elections may seem like a benign issue. You register, you fill out your ballot on the chosen day and the person you vote for either wins or loses. Not much to it, right?

We beg to differ. The right to vote is one of the most intrinsic to our democracy and the number of moving parts involved with guaranteeing this civic right are vast. When this right is impeded, it only adds to the deficit of trust Californians have with local and state governments. 

CA Fwd operates on the principle that government works best when its citizens are engaged, informed and actively holding their elected officials accountable. The fact that not all eligible voters are registered to vote and of those who are registered don’t always do so (especially in non-Presidential contests), is a problem. Furthermore, the make-up of the few registered voters that do regularly vote is not representative of California’s overall demographics.

As an organization, our participation in the Future of California Elections (FOCE) project has only just begun. Despite last year’s successful outreach drive of Online Voter Registration (OVR) in the lead-up to the general election and our extensive coverage of issues facing California under the umbrella of election and initiative reform, much work remains to be done.

Thus far in 2013, we have focused on some of the so-called “dark money” that infiltrated  last year’s election cycle by way of Arizona. We have talked about broader initiative reform and expanding our discussion of what’s possible online to voting itself.

These issues will continue to remain pillars of our work with the FOCE, but other issues have percolated in this calendar year. 

California remains one of two states that does not have any sort of statewide voter lookup tool that allows people to check their registration location and status ahead of an election. Many counties do have this capability for their residents, but voters may experience difficulty finding information on local elections, including school board and water districts, especially if these are being run by an entity other than the county. This seems unimaginable in a state that is home to a vast array of the world’s technological innovators. We are tracking the (slow) progress finally happening toward this end.

Much is also made of California’s diverse electorate. We have covered issues pertaining to many demographics and their unique challenges in getting registered and understanding the weight of voting as a civic right and impetus for change. Although the California Voter’s Guide, and the wealth of information contained within, are available in nine different languages on the state website, compliance with overcoming language barriers still needs work.

The cost of special elections that happen when a lawmaker vacates a seat mid-term is also something on the minds of Californians in these cash-strapped times. Are there alternatives to holding a one-off that can cost in the neighborhood of $300,000? Another thing to consider: when special elections are held, voter turnout is dismal. What kind of mandate can an elected leader claim with a victory victory based on a minuscule percentage of his/her constituents?

And finally, it is clear that the problems which plagued the Vote by Mail (VBM) process last cycle (landing us a ranking of 49th out of 50th among states in the number of absentee ballots rejected in 2010) need addressing. Every vote cast must be counted and this was far from the case.

California is a massive state composed of 58 different counties. In the realm of elections, we operate from the bottom up; there are few decrees from the state when it comes to running elections, which essentially has the counties acting like 58 mini-states with the burden of execution and cost on the county registrars. 

Whether this is a good or bad thing depends on the county itself. Los Angeles is nationally recognized for its efforts in reforming voting technology, but it is also home to the second largest revenue base in the country. Without something as simple as a state-provided list of basic requirements for running elections, training poll workers, etc., there can be much variation in the nuts and bolts of the voting mechanics across the state. 

It is through long-standing partnerships with many invested organizations that we at California Forward will continue our work in answering the questions posed above and shining light into areas that require the attention from lawmakers. 

Though the general election often receives the most press, elections are held every year, multiple times a year. In many ways, these municipal ones have a far greater impact on the lives of everyday citizens than the presidential one ever could. The impact of that dollar spent by a local teachers’ union or developer hits very close to home. It is imperative that not only should people understand this, but that the mechanisms are present for them to exercise their right once the fire of recognition is lit.


Christopher Nelson

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