(photo credit: Joe Shlabotnik)
Continuing with our review of the past year, we sat one-on-one with Caroline Vance Bruister of CAFwd’s Partnership for Public Accountability. Bruister explains the progress that’s been made in voter registration efforts, as well as the work that still needs to be done to make sure Californians are having their voices heard.
With 2013 coming to a close, what’s your perspective on the progress that’s been made this year in regard to California’s elections?
The good news is California has not had to fight off voter suppression efforts that have swept the nation in the past year, nor were California’s elections marred by the Superstrom Sandy (which displaced hundreds of thousands of registered voters in the Southeast on Election Day. However, there is much work to be done to improve California’s abysmal ranking of 45th in voter participation. Progress continues to be made to ensure that Californians are registered to vote, have access to information on upcoming elections in plain language, and the mechanics of elections match today’s modern voters.
What steps were taken to improve the vote-by-mail and voting technology systems? Why should these topics matter to Californians?
More and more voters are casting their votes with vote-by-mail ballots (over half of voters used vote-by-mail ballots in the November 2012 statewide general election). With this trend it is important to make sure that a vote cast is a vote counted. California Forward Action Fund (CFAF) supported Assemblymember Mullin’s AB 1135 which expands tools that are used to verify signatures on vote-by-mail ballots. Many Californians ballots are authenticated by comparing it to your signature on your driver’s license. My handwriting when I first secured my driver’s license (I was 16) is a lot different than it is today. This bill will help decrease decrease California’s vote-by-mail error rate which is among the worst in the nation.
County voting systems in California are aging rapidly and the process for approving voting systems is doing little to help certify innovative ones or to spur new approaches to developing them. Senator Padilla’s SB 360 will enable California to move forward with the development of new voting systems that reflect today’s electorate.
Making sure that votes are counted is a pretty essential piece of a functional democracy that Californians have faith in. Developing a voting experience that is reflective of the 21st Century in terms of technology and ease of use while protecting the integrity of our elections matters not only to today’s Californians but for tomorrow’s voters as well.
With California ranking 45th in voter turnout, what do you think is the primary reason why Californians aren’t coming out to the polls? With the rise in the number of special legislative elections combined with dismal turnout numbers, do you think it’s possible that California has too many elections?
The numbers speak for themselves. Only 23% of the voters turned out in the election that chose Eric Garcetti the new Mayor of Los Angeles and only 18% showed up to elect Cindy Chavez in a special election for Santa Clara County Supervisor. This year 14 special elections were held to fill vacancies! In the special election for the 54thAssembly District this month less than 9% of voters cast a vote.
It’s fair to say with these low turnouts, the people are speaking. By staying at home they are making a statement about government in California–they either don’t trust it or don’t care. We have to fix that. There’s a group of public officials and good government groups working very hard on this. The group is called Future of California Elections (FOCE). California Forward is a member of this group because we believe that modernizing out elections system is a cornerstone critical to restoring a vibrant and responsive democracy in California.
California is 48th in voter registration, but some hoped that would change as Covered California — CA’s Affordable Care Act health exchange — was expected to give customers the chance to register to vote. Now comes news that Covered California is not doing this, therefore not complying with the National Voter Registration Act. In light of this, how can we get more Californians to register to vote?
California was the first in the country to designate the state’s Health Benefit Exchange as a voter registration agency under the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA). The historic decision was hailed by voter advocates as another major step towards a more inclusive democracy in California. Given that 15 percent of the nation’s medically uninsured live in the Golden State, the integration of voter registration services into the healthcare enrollment process is predicted to boost California’s dismal voter registration rate.
For this reason, California Forward and a broad coalition of more than 40 state and national organizations, including the ACLU, California Voter Foundation and the Greenlining Institute urges Covered California to meet its legal obligation to provide voter registration services in compliance with the NVRA. In a letter to Covered California Executive Director Peter Lee, the group writes: “By failing to comply with this obligation under the NVRA, Covered California is missing a historic opportunity to offer thousands of Californians the chance to register to vote.”
Covered California’s response so far has been lacking – they have made some efforts such as designating an “NVRA Coordinator” point person. Until Covered California is in full compliance under the NVRA, thousands of Californians are being deprived of an additional opportunity to register to vote.
Looking ahead to 2014, what are the preliminary goals and projects you have lined up to improve the ability of Californians to have their voices heard?
Let’s start with the voter guide. Have you read one? No matter what language they are printed in they are dense, arcane and hard to understand. FoCE is working on ways to make sure that guide is written in plain language. The League of Women Voters of California is leading a study to develop a Best Practices Manual for Official Voter Information Guides (http://ca.lwv.org/