A tale of two elections

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With last-minute registration and voting centers that are open everyone, it’s never been easier to vote in California. That’s a good thing. But Zocalo Public Square commentator Joe Mathews says it’s also never been harder to know about the candidates and issues on our ballots. The demise of newspapers and other local media sources has resulted in an information deficit, with few independent news sources and a disorienting lack of context.

Read Joe Mathew's Connecting California column below:

A tale of two elections

It’s the best of California elections. It’s the worst of California elections.

It’s never been easier to vote in California. It’s never been harder to figure out how to vote. 

These March elections represent the culmination of years of herculean efforts by state and local officials to boost the state’s historically low voter turnouts, by making voting more convenient. So now you can register on line.  You also can register at any time, including on election day. If you vote in person, you no longer have to find one particular precinct; this year, in 15 counties, you can go to any of hundreds of vote centers, that are open for several days before the election. 

If you don’t feel like going out, it’s easy to vote by mail. In many counties, you don’t have to request a mail ballot—they automatically send you one. And you no longer have to mail your ballot in ahead of time. Just send it in by election day.

If you’re Californian, be proud. While the rest of the world doubts democracy, California has become a bastion of greater participation. More Californians—beyond 20 million—are registered to vote than ever before.

Is this a great democratic state or what?

Unfortunately, the answer is: Or what.

Because this election is a failure to match our expansion of voting with informational infrastructure to help people choose. 

Today, California voters are more misinformed than ever. Newspapers are in decline. Most election races and ballot measures don’t get covered at all. Voters too often rely on nonsense from social media. The state’s Official Voter Information Guide doesn’t cover all the races on the ballot. Our informational infrastructure is so weak that a poll showed that, in those counties with voting centers, more than 60 percent of voters don’t know about the changes. 

Why? Our state  and media have failed to explain, accurately and memorably, how our elections have changed. Heck, they can’t label the elections correctly.

Ten years ago California eliminated primary elections for state offices. To replace primaries,  voters approved a “top two” system, where the first-round election is actually a general election, when candidates from all parties appear on the ballot and voters have the most choice. The second round is a run-off for the top two finishers in the general election. 

Still, the state and elite media persist in calling the first round, inaccurately, a primary. This is a clear mistake, with real consequences, since California voters—especially the younger and diverse voters who are registered independents—are less likely to turn out for primary elections than general elections. But the state and the media won’t correct the error.

This mislabeling adds another dimension of confusion to the March 3 elections. Because political parties still hold primaries in California for president, the presidential contest actually is a primary.  But all the other races on your ballot—everything from state assembly and senate to city council—will be general elections.

So March 3 will be, quite literally, a tale of two elections—a general and a primary.

Unfortunately, Dickens isn’t covering this. Our election tale is now being told by politicians like

Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, who make false attacks on California’s election system. That may be why 20 percent of likely California voters tell pollsters they are not confident that their ballot will be counted.

 Those doubters are distressingly wrong. California is so committed to counting every ballot that the count will go on for weeks after election day. For this, California will be savaged by national media demanding to know, “What is taking so long?” 

We can’t effectively rebut such  lies. But we can construct new processes of deliberation and information—like a better ballot guide, or citizens’ juries to study ballot questions—to serve our growing population of voters. 

Until we do, California elections will be events when everyone votes, and no one knows what they’re doing.

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.

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