Mark Paul, co-author, with Joe Mathews, of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It, responds to California’s state primary election on Tuesday. This post also appeared on Paul and Mathews’ blog, The California Fix.
The voters speak with their silence
In the wake of the June 8 primary, the papers today are full of stories telling us what the voters said on Tuesday. To which I have to ask, what voters?
The real story of the Tuesday elections, it seems to me, is that voters have given up on believing in democracy under California’s current electoral system. Seventy-five percent of California’s voters—12,749,727 of them, twelve times the number who voted for Meg Whitman, six times the number who voted for Prop 14—kissed off the election.
Despite being bombarded with a couple of hundred million dollars worth of political advertising, they could not be moved. The triumphant eMeg spent about $74 for every vote she received. (It’s a measure of how brain dead California’s media have become that Whitman—a politician who spent in excess of $80 million running against an unknown opponent but managed to win fewer votes than the feckless Bill Simon won running against the popular mayor of Los Angeles in the 2002 primary, when California had 1.8 million fewer registered voters— is today being described as the owner of a “powerful, well-financed machine.”) But what’s true of Whitman is true of the system as a whole. It cost all the players in the political system about $50 for every voter who turned out Tuesday.
There’s a clear message here to California’s political class, the candidates and the armies of consultants, spinmeisters, and message polishers: Californians aren’t buying your shit anymore.
Now some will say that the turnout was so low because there was no high-profile Democratic contest for governor. But though it was certainly a factor, that can’t explain the extraordinarily low turnout in many areas of the state—the Inland Empire, the San Joaquin Valley—where Republicans dominate. The turnout in Riverside County was 16.5 percent, and only 20.9 percent among Republicans. It was 20.5 percent in Orange County, and only 27.6 percent for Republicans. It was 19.8 percent in San Bernardino, and only 26.5 percent for Republicans. In the parts of the state most alienated from the status quo in Sacramento and most attended to in the election, voters have turned off.
And you cannot blame them. Almost no one in California’s political class is speaking openly and honestly about the state’s constitutional crisis, what Joe and I call the California Crackup. The only thing on the ballot that even attempted to speak to the need for change was Prop 14, the jungle primary measure.
But even Prop 14 was more symptom than cure. Pressed onto the ballot by Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado, then state senator, in a illegal bit of log-rolling in last year’s budget compromise, Prop 14 never received any scrutiny in the Legislature and never got the kind of informed discussion in the campaign that should accompany throwing out two hundred years of experience in America with party nominations for office.
Indeed, Prop 14 embodies the worst of the California system. Put on the ballot in a dirty deal necessitated by the supermajority shackles on the Legislature, Prop 14, which most political scientists believe will not do the things its proponents promises, changes the constitution despite having been approved by only 12 percent of registered voters.
That is exactly how California got broken. And until California’s political class begins addressing the need to fix the system, expect the voters to stay home.