Monday, November 2, 2015

Yes, Virginia, We Have Another Election Coming Up

First Women to Vote in California, 1912; California Historical Society, CHS2011.559
After a long battle, California finally granted women the right to vote in state elections in October 1911. In this photograph, three of the first women in the state to vote cast their ballots at a poll booth in March 1912. It was not until 1920, with the ratification of the 19th Amendment, that the national fight for women’s suffrage ended. Even then, women were slow to acquire the voting habit, taking about 60 years to equal or exceed the number of male voters casting ballots, according to the Pew Research.   
By Steve Swatt

Voters in many parts of California face another Election Day on November 3 that few are aware of and in which even fewer will participate. We won’t be electing a president or governor, but voters throughout California will be deciding local, nonpartisan issues—such as mayor and sheriff in San Francisco, school board members in Palos Verdes and El Segundo, and local taxes in Hermosa Beach and South Pasadena.
If history is any indication, electors will stay home in droves. Municipal elections simply don’t attract enough attention to goad voters to the polls—media coverage, particularly on television, is virtually non-existent, a boost in a city’s transient occupancy tax isn’t sexy, and nonpartisan races lack cues that tend to be a magnet for voters.
Voting Broadside, 1879; California Historical Society, CHS2014.1840
Before campaigns were waged in the media markets, broadsides such as this one exhorting “Awake!
Assert Your Rights!” entreated San Francisco citizens to get out the vote.
The problem is most acute in Los Angeles where barely 10 percent of eligible voters participated in last March’s municipal elections, and only 7.2 percent of voters in a state senate district cast ballots in a special election. Californians tell pollsters they dislike politicians, are disillusioned with government, and simply believe that their votes don’t count. But the fact is, elections do matter—whether voters flock to the polls or stay home on Election Day.

How would California’s political landscape be different had Dianne Feinstein not been elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1969? That same year, 32-year-old Jerry Brown won a seat on the Los Angeles Community College Board of Trustees, which offered him a springboard to statewide office and a record four terms as governor.

Voter apathy has been most severe in recent years, with the 2014 statewide primary and general elections that determined California’s constitutional officers setting records for futility. Last November, for example, an astonishing 94.8 percent of eligible 18-year-olds did not cast ballots. But voter laziness and indifference aren’t new phenomena. In arguably the most important election in Los Angeles history—the 1905 authorization to purchase land and water rights in the Owens Valley—barely 11,400 voters decided the city’s future out of a population of 200,000.

(Left) Water Works Bond Certificate, 1907; courtesy of the California History Room,
California State Library, Sacramento, California. (Right) Los Angeles Aqueduct Celebration,
November 5, 1913; courtesy of the Library of Congress
The second Aqueduct bond issue—worth $23 million—was approved in June 1907 by Los Angeles voters by a 10-to-1 margin. The funds secured construction of the gravity-powered Los Angeles Aqueduct (right), the country’s largest municipal water system in its day.

Numerous studies have shown that in low-turnout elections, it is the older, whiter, and more-affluent voters who reliably cast ballots and thus have disproportionate clout at the ballot box. A UC San Diego analysis found that such elections contribute to poorer outcomes for minorities in terms of government priorities and budgeting.

In response to recent low-turnout elections, the city of Los Angeles will consolidate future municipal elections with even-year state and federal contests—a move that should entice many more citizens to vote in down-ticket city races. At the state level, lawmakers in Sacramento responded to last year’s dismal showing at the polls by introducing a number of bills designed to boost turnout and make voting more convenient. Under one closely watched measure signed by Governor Brown, California will become the second state in the nation to automatically register eligible voters when they obtain or renew their driver's licenses.

Some experts argue, however, that new laws to boost registration merely work around the edges, because increasing voter registration will not necessarily make Californians more interested in voting or engaging in the political process. That will only happen when Californians understand that elections have real-world consequences that affect all of us, and that we already have the power to help dictate those outcomes.

Steve Swatt is a veteran political analyst and public affairs executive. He is lead author (with Susie Swatt, Jeff Raimundo, and Rebecca LaVally) of Game Changers: Twelve Elections That Transformed California, winner of the California Historical Society Book Award, co-published by Heyday and the California Historical Society (2015). Visit his website at
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