The end of a two-year legislative session is a showcase of the most anti-democratic tendencies of our political system, and this year will be no different. Last-chance votes on legislative proposals loom at the same time as lawmakers do their most prolific fundraising of the year. But this end of session might also bring votes on three reforms that could shake up democracy in California.
Dismal voter participation reached a nadir in California in the 2014 general election, with 31% turnout, including just 8% of youth who showed up at the polls. Advocates and policymakers across the state have banded together to address this crisis in civic participation. On the voter registration front, those efforts have started to pay off. Secretary of State Alex Padilla announced yesterday that 18 million Californians are registered to vote, the second highest number ever, and most of the new registrations were in that hard-to-reach 18-25 year old demographic.
Yet as voter registration improves, getting those voters to the polls remains a challenge. This November, the high stakes of the presidential race should drive people to turn out. But even if Californians do show up to vote for president, a trend we can usually rely on, how can we stir civic engagement when the White House isn’t on the line? It has become clear that the problem goes beyond registration. There are too many barriers to getting to the polls, even when voters are registered. A lack of information about what’s on the ballot, and why it matters, keeps many people from voting. And a lack of trust in government means people don’t believe voting will change anything.
SB 450 would create a vote-by-mail system in California, putting into motion a process to allow every registered voter in California to receive their ballot in the mail, and drop it off before election day at a convenient neighborhood location. The bill allows for:
An extended period to vote: Every registered voter will receive a ballot and can start voting a month before Election Day. Voters may mail their ballot back, drop it at a voter drop-box or drop it at any vote center in their county.
Weekend voting: Every voter will be able to vote in person at least 10 days before Election Day, which includes 2 weekends.
More convenient voting locations: Voters can use any vote center in their county to cast a ballot. Many of these vote centers will allow voters to use more convenient locations than a traditional precinct polling place, for example near a voter’s workplace or school.
Greater language access: Every vote center will provide translated materials and assistance in the languages protected by the federal Voting Rights Act. In Los Angeles, for example, that means voter assistance in 10 languages.
Greater disabled access: Every vote center will have accessible voting machines to assist voters with physical impairments to vote on their own, and any voter can request an accessible ballot, including ballots necessary for the visually impaired.
Same-day registration: Every vote center will have to provide same-day voter registration which allows citizens to register to vote or update their registration information on Election Day.
Direct public participation: The public will have an unprecedented voice in how elections are run, including formal consultation on the location and number of vote centers and ballot drop boxes.
A similar system used in Colorado has already proven to increase turnout while reducing administrative costs. Combined with voter registration reforms enacted over the last several years, this measure could reverse the slide in voter participation by removing many of the barriers voters face, even when they want to make their voice heard. The bill is awaiting a vote on the Assembly Floor for its next-to-final vote.
Two other bills would fill in some of the blanks for voters who feel they don’t have enough information to vote, and help restore confidence that voting matters.
AB 700 targets one source of that voter confusion to make clear who is really behind ballot measure campaign ads. Voters who feel campaign ads are misleading or don’t contain enough information will get a clear signpost as to who’s speaking. The bill requires the three largest funders of ballot measure ads to be clearly identified for five seconds at the beginning of ads, so voters know who is actually paying for them. It will also help state ethics officials unmask the hidden donors behind campaigns. The bill is awaiting a vote on the Senate Floor.
Finally, we need to restore confidence that voting matters. SB 1107 will allow the public to choose whether to fight special interest influence in campaigns with public financing of local elections.
Poll after poll shows that many voters don’t believe that their vote can make a difference, a sentiment that stems in part from citizens’ eroding trust in politicians. According to recent polls by Pew and the New York Times, 83% of Americans believe money has too much influence on politics today, and 85% of Americans believe that we need to make fundamental changes to the system for funding political campaigns. SB 1107 would allow local cities to create citizen-funded election programs, just as charter cities in California may already do.
Public financing programs can amplify the voices of everyday Californians who donate small amounts, encourage more diverse participation, and give candidates an alternative to relying on large contributions. Giving citizens the ability to dilute the influence of large campaign contributors – or make them unnecessary – with citizen funding can help make local elected officials more accountable to voters. That begins to rebuild trust. SB 1107 is also awaiting a vote on the Assembly Floor.
No magic wand or single solution is going to re-engage Californians in civic participation. Put together, these bills will help turn the tide.