Print Story What if they gave an election and nobody came?
By aphrael (Thu Jun 08, 2006 at 02:35:59 PM EST) elections, politics, boredom, tuxes, weddings, marriage, fraud (all tags)
I had a hard time figuring out how to vote in this election; harder than most. It's not that there were no choices to be made -- the Democracy represented by Phil Angelides is somewhat enormously different than the Democracy represented by Steve Westly, for example -- but I could never summon the energy to care enough to investigate those differences, or opine about them. Some of it is that I spent the last two weeks of May working hard, being a bridesmaid, and fighting off the evils of strep throat; but the interest had been small before those weeks, and never revived with my health. Nor was it just me; turnout in this election was the lowest since 1920.

The most boring election in modern times yielded the lowest turnout in modern times.

[Inside: a picture of me in a tux!]

First the picture. The weekend before Memorial day weekend, I had the pleasurable job of being a bridesmaid. The full set of pictures aren't in yet, but here is one, of the bride with me standing behind her:

aphrael in a tux

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:

  1. Californians have voted too many times recently and they're bored of elections;

  2. 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:

  1. The lack of high-profile ballot initiatives;

  2. The declining attachment to political parties in California;

  3. 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.

  1. 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?)

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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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What if they gave an election and nobody came? | 24 comments (24 topical, 0 hidden)
Wait.. by Driusan (2.00 / 0) #1 Thu Jun 08, 2006 at 03:57:15 PM EST
Why does each party get its own ballot? and why do you have 4 different "non-partisan" ballots?

And why are you doing your best creepy-greyrat impression in that picture?

Vive le Montréal libre.

it's a primary. by aphrael (4.00 / 1) #2 Thu Jun 08, 2006 at 04:00:33 PM EST
the members of each party are allowed to vote on who that party's candidate will be in the general election, and everyone is allowed to vote on the other stuff (ballot measures, nonpartisan offices, etc).

some parties allow nonpartisan voters to vote for some of their partisan offices, so those parties each get their own nonpartisan ballot, plus the general nonpartisan ballot.

it's a fucked up system.

If television is a babysitter, the internet is a drunk librarian who won't shut up.

[ Parent ]
Shouldn't the parties.. by Driusan (2.00 / 0) #4 Thu Jun 08, 2006 at 04:22:52 PM EST determining that type of thing on their own, rather than in a state run election?

Vive le Montréal libre.
[ Parent ]
that's a good question. by aphrael (4.00 / 1) #8 Thu Jun 08, 2006 at 05:41:39 PM EST
It used to work that way. But in the decades after the civil war, much of America was a one-party state (Democrats in the south, Republicans in the north), and there was a problem that the corrupt party leadership always selected the candidates and there was no real opposition. So reformers in the late nineteenth century pushed a system wherein the candidates, in order to be guaranteed a position on the ballot in the fall, had to be selected through an election open to all party members.

That is: if you have this massive state-run primary, your candidate gets on the ballot without you having to go through the trouble of collecting lots of signatures to get them on the ballot.

If television is a babysitter, the internet is a drunk librarian who won't shut up.

[ Parent ]
unsure. by aphrael (4.00 / 2) #3 Thu Jun 08, 2006 at 04:01:53 PM EST
i don't remember precisely when at the reception that picture was taken, so i don't remember what i was doing.

all i know is that it hurt to fucking speak so i was trying to do as little of it as i could.

i felt better later on after i got drunk.
If television is a babysitter, the internet is a drunk librarian who won't shut up.

[ Parent ]
Quite clearly by Driusan (2.00 / 0) #5 Thu Jun 08, 2006 at 04:24:29 PM EST
You were leering at her ass.

Vive le Montréal libre.
[ Parent ]
heh by Greener (4.00 / 1) #13 Thu Jun 08, 2006 at 07:54:17 PM EST
You're one to talk.

[ Parent ]
Ha ha by Driusan (2.00 / 0) #18 Fri Jun 09, 2006 at 04:07:35 AM EST
It's funny cause it's true Why don't I remember that?

Vive le Montréal libre.
[ Parent ]
some comments/questions by R343L (2.00 / 0) #6 Thu Jun 08, 2006 at 05:07:33 PM EST
Re #3: That seems bad, but you'll rig something up better next time (better labelling, shelves, something). Live and learn. Could be worse: we could have giant ballots the size of posters with all languages squeezed on there. ;)

Re-turnout: We found it insanely frustrating that there were so many uncontested races. Now, granted, I don't want to run for office, but you would think there would at least be two for any given office (I generally vote for the non-incumbent if I have no reason to vote for the incumbent. That is, challengers get bonus points.)

We were also driven nuts by the fact that even though there were seven candidates for the democrat spot for governor, you wouldn't know it from the media. Is it just some kind of unwritten rule that only the party big-wigs have a chance at winning and we shouldn't even pay attention to the others? Granted, all of them were political newbies, but I like that -- a smart person with no political experience would probably look at things differently. At the least, they could ask pointed questions at debates...


"There will be time, there will be time / To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet." -- Eliot

Well by ucblockhead (2.00 / 0) #7 Thu Jun 08, 2006 at 05:14:47 PM EST
Grey Davis was a democratic incompetent fool. The Californian party is full of right-wing loons. When Davis was going to be booted, the leading Democrat was essentially a party hack. The relatively bipartisan Republican the public voted in to replace Davis has basically been ineffectual.

Is it any wonder that people are giving up on the system?
[ucblockhead is] useless and subhuman

My take on California elections by lm (4.00 / 2) #9 Thu Jun 08, 2006 at 05:42:08 PM EST
The endless citizen initiatives retard turnout for elected officials because with the citizens themselves making policy, there is a perception that voting for the right person to enforce that policy is less important.

Governor of California is one office that, presently, I don't think any sane person would run for. With such a large chunk of the budget being earmarked through various initiatives, the governor is set up to fail.

Kindness is an act of rebellion.
initiatives are ridiculous by R343L (4.00 / 1) #10 Thu Jun 08, 2006 at 06:57:31 PM EST
Like this year: there may be nothing wrong with increasing taxes (if the budget requires it) or  funding pre-schools. However, tying them together (as you mention) removes discretion from the legislators (and the governor of course). What is the point of having (presumably competent) legislators, if we hamstring them with all these specific rules? I don't want to make these decisions -- that's why there are legislators. Just makes it seem more pointless to vote for good reps.


"There will be time, there will be time / To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet." -- Eliot

[ Parent ]
initiatives are a good idea that's been abused. by aphrael (2.00 / 0) #11 Thu Jun 08, 2006 at 07:10:16 PM EST
Initiatives were introduced in California in the days when it was effectively a one-party state, and it was impossible to get reforms through the legislature because the party leadership was entrenched and beholden to the people who would have been hurt by the reforms.

Even without that consideration, there are certain things the legislature will never do of its own free will which the people nonetheless want --- see, eg, term limits and medical marijuana.

So ... initiatives have their place, and I would hate to see California without them. That said, there are many things we are asked to vote for that we shouldn't be voting on.
If television is a babysitter, the internet is a drunk librarian who won't shut up.

[ Parent ]
true true by R343L (2.00 / 0) #14 Thu Jun 08, 2006 at 08:47:57 PM EST
It's just it seems like nine-tenths of them are "fund this special program with these special funds". Gah!

But I agree that it's necessary for some things...


"There will be time, there will be time / To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet." -- Eliot

[ Parent ]
necessary? by theantix (2.00 / 0) #23 Fri Jun 09, 2006 at 04:38:47 PM EST
It's only necessary if you keep on electing people who refuse to do what the people actually want them to do.  Somehow, much of the democratic world gets by just fine without having an initiative system.  So while initiatives may have solved some problems when they were introduced, and thought they may have done some positive things... I'd hardly call them necessary.

<foreigner type="cranky">Back where I come from, we elect governments to, you know, govern.</foreigner>

You sir, are worse than Hitler.

[ Parent ]
ok, you're right you're right! by R343L (2.00 / 0) #24 Fri Jun 09, 2006 at 08:41:56 PM EST

Truthfully, I would like if it wasn't necessary. But the US has two unfortunate problems: two party  system which makes it hard for a small "third" party to put something on the table (e.g. drug legalization) and, as you mention, representatives that don't represent. So, for the time, being, necessary.

But, yeah, you're right. :)


"There will be time, there will be time / To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet." -- Eliot

[ Parent ]
voting in CA by Skull Woman (2.00 / 0) #12 Thu Jun 08, 2006 at 07:31:06 PM EST
I used to live there.  Too many voter initiatives to study.  Nobody gets beyond the sound bites to really understand the issues.  Most people are too tired or uneducated to make informed votes.  To make a difference start in your house and then your block.  I moved to a small 300 family community so I could make a difference.  We don't even have a mayor.  We have a Community Center that has a board.  Thats the closest to town government we get.  There isn't even a watering hole in our town unless you count the drive through coffee place by the highway.

VS2FP by TheophileEscargot (2.00 / 0) #15 Thu Jun 08, 2006 at 09:14:03 PM EST
Interesting to see how these complicated US elections actually work. In UKia the ballots have been a lot simpler, though they're trying to make things more complicated with new layers of government.
It is unlikely that the good of a snail should reside in its shell: so is it likely that the good of a man should?
The entrenched problems of State government by wiredog (2.00 / 0) #16 Fri Jun 09, 2006 at 02:24:32 AM EST
are, I suspect, strongly related to the whole "legislate via ballot initiative" process.

Earth First!
(We can strip mine the rest later.)

Hypothesis by Rogerborg (2.00 / 0) #17 Fri Jun 09, 2006 at 03:43:27 AM EST
Governance is optimal when performed as the Founding Fathers intended, by the wealthy and educated.

I'm not being in the least flippant here.  The moment any country in the world wants to start weighting voting by, say, tax contributions or educational achievements, I'll be on the plane.

Metus amatores matrum compescit, non clementia.

really? by garlic (4.00 / 1) #19 Fri Jun 09, 2006 at 05:22:37 AM EST
I don't know about over there, but over here our government is already a majority rich guys with law or business degrees.

[ Parent ]
And that works just fine by Rogerborg (2.00 / 0) #20 Fri Jun 09, 2006 at 05:42:24 AM EST
Right up to the point where We, the People get involved.  The necessity for regular campaigning, stump speechifying, and that 2% churn of Senators really gets in the way of smooth long term governance, and look at the mess that California's got itself into by actually listening to the peons, instead of just pretending so to do.  I think the democratic experiment has pretty much been shown to be a failure.

Metus amatores matrum compescit, non clementia.
[ Parent ]
you don't happen by garlic (4.00 / 1) #21 Fri Jun 09, 2006 at 07:50:17 AM EST
you don't happen to be in line for the scottish throne, do you?

[ Parent ]
Damn Scots! They ruined Scotland. by Rogerborg (2.00 / 0) #22 Fri Jun 09, 2006 at 08:41:36 AM EST
Me and half the country, I suspect.  I might be in with a chance of running Tiree after the Imminent Collapse of Western Society.

Metus amatores matrum compescit, non clementia.
[ Parent ]
What if they gave an election and nobody came? | 24 comments (24 topical, 0 hidden)