Given the existence of clear alternative visions for the Democratic party, and what the program for the next governorship should be, and given the fact that there were clear differences for most of the downticket races, whence comes this indifference? It's not as though there are no decisions to be made --- so why do I, and so many other people, not care enough to be bothered to make them?
The standard official lines on this have been one of two arguments:
- Californians have voted too many times recently and they're bored of elections;
- Californians were turned off by negative campaigining in the gubernatorial primary.
There's something to both of these. Election fatigue was well documented in the former East Germany, which held election after election (culminating in the first reunified German elections) over the period of 1989-1990; enormous turnout was recorded in the first election and moderately pathetic turnout in the last. Yet, aside from pundits, I haven't heard anyone express election fatigue; it's not that elections have gotten old, it's that this election seems pointless. And it is certainly true that the election was one of the most negative in history --- even the debates were unbelievably negative. Yet negative campaigning has never before caused this dearth of interest, and negative campaigns are the staple food of the modern political consumer.
I think something else is afoot; I blame turnout on these three things:
- The lack of high-profile ballot initiatives;
- The declining attachment to political parties in California;
- The lasting effects of the recall election.
One of the primary driving forces in California local politics is the ballot initiative. In any given election, we are likely to have between five and twenty initiatives. Many of them are uncontroversial (hey!! lets borrow $400 million to buy parklands!); some of them are highly controversial (hey! let's prohibit gay people from teaching!). The advertising campaigns for and against the controversial ones recieve lots of funding, and they have a high profile; and more importantly, they have legions of dedicated, passionate supporters and opponents for whom this one issue is the most important thing in the political world, who keep the press and the public focused on them, and who drive their friends and family to distraction urging them to agree.
This election had fewer initiatives than normal (because of the way initiative qualifications work, most of the ones which would have appeared on this ballot in the normal order of things appeared on last fall's special election ballot instead); and neither of them attracted much passion. Borrow a small amount of money (relatively speaking to build new libraries? Good or bad, right or wrong, that doesn't attract a highly passionate response from anyone except unemployed librarians. Tax the rich to pay for a preschool program which will increase by 7% the number of students in preschool? Aside from the people who are going to be taxed, and the anti-tax crowd, nobody really cares ... and even the anti-tax crowd is hard pressed to put together more than a pro forma opposition.
But surely people want to come out and vote in the gubernatorial primary, right? Unfortunately, the answer is not really, in a way that is emblematic of a serious problem with modern California politics: people's interest in and commitment to political parties has declined while the relative importance of the parties has not. The blanket primary was an important attempt at a solution to this problem, but the parties didn't like it, and they got the Supreme Court to rule that it couldn't be imposed on them without their consent.
The problem is this: more than a third of California voters have opted out of the party process altogether, registering as nonpartisan voters, while a significant number of those still registered with a party don't care much about the party per se, and aren't interested in its internal battles; while at the same time, redistricting has resulted in a situation where most legislative races are only winnable by the candidate of a particular party, and none other. Thus, in legislative races, the party primary has become more important precisely when people have become less interested. Proposition 77 on last year's ballot was an attempt to fix this problem, but it failed.
Still, that shouldn't matter for executive races to the same degree (although it certainly means that people are less interested in the primary in general). Which brings us to the lasting effects of the recall election: people no longer believe that changing governors means anything, that it will have any effect at all.
We fired Gray Davis for, essentially, incompetence at his job. We replaced him with Arnold Schwarzenegger (a replacement I did not endorse), a man who --- while he plays a better game in the sense that he sells himself better to the public, and makes a great show of doing a better job -- has not been any more effective than Gray Davis was at solving the entrenched problems of state government. In retrospect, firing Gray Davis was a mistake. Prospectively, it makes it hard to care about gubernatorial primaries, or gubernatorial elections in general: it seems probable that no governor will be able to do a good job. So what's the point in picking?
I spent all of Tuesday, except for brief intervals, at a polling place. Running a polling place, in fact. Better: running two polling places, as the inspector for one of them resigned unexpectedly about three weeks before the election and the county elections people called me and asked 'hey, can you do both'? This was easier than it should have been because the judges on one of the boards was a fantastically effective woman, a former registrar from CSUEB, and was able to take over most of my duties for me, allowing me to focus on the other, more inexperienced board.
There were, as always, some problems.
- San Mateo County uses optical scanner ballots with machines in each precinct that can count them. THis means that in a building with four polling places present, there are four machines. (We have to watch all day, hawkeyed, to make sure that none go in the wrong machine; it's a nightmare to reconcile if they do). At the start of the day, we plug the machine in and print out a tape that lists all votes currently counted in the machine; that number should be zero. If it isn't zero, we panic. One of the machines printed out its tape in almost unreadable ink: the ink ribbon was dead. So we called out a tech to fix it, and moved along; the tech showed up around 8, and replaced the ribbon.
At this point, we wanted to test to see if his fix had worked, which required trying to run an invalid ballot into the machine. (The machine rejects ballots with overvotes, and prints a note on the tape explaining why; you can override it, but by default it will suggest that you try again). So I grabbed a ballot, and marked it with overvotes; the tech objected, complaining that I couldn't do that. (Hmm. how do you want to test it, then? If the machine doesn't reject this ballot, the machine is broken, and we need to pitch everyone to provisional ballots anyway; so what's the problem, precisely?)
- A voter came in, with his wife and child, who clearly only spoke Spanish. Now, this isn't a problem; the ballots are in Spanish, if you want, and speaking English isn't a requirement for voting or for citizenship. The problem was: he did not know how to mark the votes, and my limited Spanish was not enough to explain it to him. (I suspect that he was in an elderly-not-quite-able-to-deal-with-new-things state, as well; but it's hard for me to tell how much of that is real and how much of it is me drawing inappropriate assumptions due to the language difficulty). So I explained to his son how to mark the ballot, and his son translated for him, and then helped him vote.
This is all perfectly legal; you can have anyone you want help you vote, as long as I record the fact that it happened.
The trouble was, i'm fairly certain his son was telling him who to vote for rather than just telling him mechanically how to vote. That isn't ok. But my Spanish isn't quite good enough that I could prove it; so I let it go.
Looking back, I made the wrong call; I should have gone to one of the other precincts and grabbed the one spanish-speaking board member and had her explain it to him, rather than letting his son do it; or, failing that, once I thought he was instructing his father in vote selection, I should have gotten her and asked her to put a stop to it.
It's probably a minor matter, in the scheme of things; but I got it wrong, and that voter did not, I think, get a free vote.
- Another voter came in, later, who only spoke Chinese. Again, not a problem; we have Chinese ballots, too. However, it was a bit of a contretemps: it took forever to find the ballot, and then he wasn't convinced he had the right one.
One of the irritating things about primary elections in a trilingual county is that we have thirty-three different ballot types that we can hand out (7 parties, 4 different nonpartisan ballots, 3 different languages). There isn't actually room for all of these on the table, of course, so some of them have to get sequestered away in a box behind the table; logic says these should be the ones we're least likely to use, which includes most of the Spanish and Chinese ballots.
So, when this gentleman came in, and requested his ballot, we had to search for it.
There are enough different ballots, in enough similar looking colors, that this took an unreasonable length of time. He stood there, waiting, while I searched -- no signs of impatience, but I felt bad. On some level, this kind of customer service is inexcusable. On another level, the other options were worse ... but it still felt somehow discriminatory, somehow wrong, that this voter of all voters had to wait while we looked around for his ballot, as we screamed to the world that he wasn't like other voters, and as we gave him mediocre-slow customer service.
- And then there was the closing contretemps. At the end of the day, we have to reconcile our ballot counts. In a normal election, this consists of (1) count the number of unvoted ballots, (2) add the number of voted ballots (the machine kindly tells us); (3) see if they add up to the total on the receipt which came with the ballots.
This election was different.
The ballots were delivered to me on Saturday morning in a sealed container; I'm not allowed to break the seal until i'm in the presence of the election board. Every previous election, the container has not been sealed in advance, and the delivery people counted the ballots for me (they come in stacks of 50 or 20 depending), before I signed for them. This time, I was presented with a receipt and asked to sign it, without being able to count.
The receipt was two pages long, listing the totals for each type of ballot delivered.
Then, Tuesday morning, the County Sherriff showed up around 6.45 with additional ballots, and another receipt. (This was good; the original delivery had, for example, included Green-Spanish and Green-Chinese ballots, but no Green-English ballots).
So I had three pages of receipts to add together to get the starting number. Fine. Done.
We counted the leftover ballots. We added the number on the machine. We had 71 ballots more than we should have.
We did it again. Same result.
OK, lets do it again. Aha, one of the packs of 20 was being counted as a pack of 40. We now have 51 ballots too many.
Then I remembered something which had struck me as odd early in the day, but which I had not paid much notice to: normally the ballots are sequentially numbered, but the very first pack of 50 that we started with had been of a wildly different sequence. I thought about this, then asked: "ok, how many democratic party ballots did we really recieve?"
They said they gave us 250. That's what the receipt claimed. We had been given 300 (we still had the base stubs for all the ballots we'd handed out, as we're required by law to keep them).
That's no way to run an election.
I filed a lengthy complaint, we packed up, and all went home.
It's a long day, election day is: you have to be there at 6am, you're lucky to get home before 10pm, and while lots of it are boring, you have to maintain energy the whole time.
It's more fulfilling, though, when it's an election you care about, and when people vote.
This election was more frustrating than fulfilling; I didn't care, and virtually nobody voted.
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