California is defined by its superlatives, first among the states in population, economic energy and rich cultural, ethnic and language diversity. For generations it has been a magnet, attracting adventurers, risk takers and dreamers from around the world who have come to its valleys, mountains and seashores in search of a better life for themselves and for their children. And for many, the state's motto, Eureka --- "I found it" --- says it all. Indeed, many have found and continue to find California to be the land of opportunity.
California's electoral system reflects the state's unique size and diversity. It boasts a voting age population of some 21,588,461 i, giving California 53 seats in the House of Representatives and more than 10 percent of the seats in the Electoral College. Federal elections are conducted by the state's 58 counties under the direction of the California Secretary of State, who serves as the state's Chief Elections Officer ii. California's most populous county, Los Angeles, is the country's largest voting jurisdiction with a voting age population of 5,541,908, while its smallest county, Alpine, contains only 919 of voting age iii.
The task of conducting error-free elections in California is staggering, made particularly challenging because of an array of circumstances that characterize California and reforms designed to further the opportunity for citizen participation in the political process. These include:
California has some 25,000 precincts. Staffing these polling places for statewide elections requires more than 100,000 reliable, trained poll workers in conveniently-located, disability-accessible sites. Recruiting and training sufficient poll workers, and locating appropriate polling places, are continuing challenges for California's elections officials.
For each statewide federal election, California sends each household containing a registered voter a California Ballot Pamphlet with information regarding state ballot measures, statewide candidates, qualified political parties and other matters. In addition, each voter receives from local elections officials a sample ballot, a local ballot pamphlet, and other information. Additional elections materials are available on election official websites and at polling places. The tasks of preparing and providing the materials are staggering and reviewing the materials can be overwhelming to some voters.
California is known for its ballot complexity. California ballots are often long, due to the numerous ballot measures and candidate races presented to voters, as well as the large number of political parties qualified to participate in California elections. The complexity of the ballot has a direct impact on voter turnout, complicating efforts to encourage citizen participation at the polls.
Thousands of Different Ballot Types
In statewide primary elections, California elections officials must configure more than 60,000 different ballot types. Accordingly, the risks of of providing the incorrect ballot type to a voter are high.
California has some of the most urban and most rural areas in the country. Densely populated areas such as San Francisco bear little resemblance to the wide open expanses of Modoc County or the forests of Trinity County or the deserts of San Bernardino County, the largest county geographically in the country. Election processes reflect that geographic diversity, challenging elections officials and voters alike.
As of December 24, 2002, there were 19 companies whose 23 voting systems were certified for use in California. These included three basic categories of systems: Optical Scan, DRE/Touchscreen, and Punch Card. A county is free to use any certified system, leading to widespread diversity among counties and even within counties, which often use one system in polling places and another to count absentee ballots. The array of available systems complicates the training of poll workers, makes educating voters and the media difficult and often confuses voters who move from one county to another.
Californians may start voting by mail and in person at various elections offices 29 days before an election. This early voting reduces the timeframe elections officials have to prepare for an election, has a direct impact on campaign strategy and creates additional choices for voters in terms of the timing of their voting.
Currently, California has seven political parties qualified to participate in primary elections. California's closed primary means that party-specific ballots must be prepared in primary elections for the voters registered with each party. Voters who have declined to affiliate with a political party have the option to vote in primary elections only for measures and non-partisan candidates, or to request a ballot to participate in the nomination process for a particular political party.
Since the 1980's, California law has permitted a voter whose eligibility to vote cannot be immediately established at a polling place to cast a provisional ballot. At the 2002 General Election, some 200,000 provisional ballots were cast. It is estimated that only 60 percent of those ballots were ultimately counted. Provisional voting permits the handling of disputes after Election Day but it also increases the need for additional training of poll workers, greater education of voters with respect to the provisional voting process, and may delay reporting the outcome of elections.
Increasingly voters are casting their ballots by mail rather than voting in person. At the November 2002 General Election, more than 27 percent of voters cast ballots by mail, compared to less than three percent of the voters in 1962. A recent law iv allowing voters to become "permanent absentee voters" means that more and more voters are choosing to permanently vote from home. Voting by mail advances the timeline for elections officials to prepare for an election, often requires a different vote tabulating system from that used to tabulate votes cast in person, and sometimes delays announcing the outcome of elections since many vote-by-mail ballots are processed after Election Day. These issues especially affect overseas and military voters who, under California law, are entitled to special absentee voter status and can initiate a request for a ballot 60 days before an election.
In order to ensure that all citizens can participate in the electoral process and pursuant to Federal law, election materials are produced and oral assistance is provided in a variety of languages. For example, Los Angeles County provides ballots, sample ballots, and other materials, as well as oral assistance in seven languages: English, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Spanish, Tagalog and Vietnamese. Some jurisdictions, in response to local need, provide written and oral assistance in other languages. This adds to the challenges of conducting an error-free election.
With challenges, however, come opportunities. California has been a leader in reforming the electoral system. In fact, many of the provisions in the federal Help America Vote Act of 2002 ("HAVA") v are already a matter of law, regulation or procedure in California. For example:
- California provided for registration-by-mail in 1975 and vote-by-mail on demand in 1978;
- California provided for permanent absentee balloting in 2000;
- Californians adopted Proposition 41 in the March 2002 Primary Election, designed to partially fund the replacement of prescored punch card voting machines in California;
- California has a statewide voter registration database, known as Calvoter;
- California permits ballots to be corrected or replaced before being cast;
- Provisional ballots have been used in California since the 1980s;
- A statewide complaint procedure for making allegations regarding violations of elections laws is in place, including a toll-free telephone number (1-800-345-VOTE) for making complaints;
- Extensive efforts are made to accommodate the needs of citizens from the disability and minority language communities.
And yet, much more needs to be done, as revealed by the turnout of voting age population of less than 37 percent at the last statewide election in November 2002. Restoring confidence in the integrity of the electoral system is critical if we are to bring voters back to the polls.
Indeed, HAVA can and should and will be implemented in California as a continuing step in making the electoral process fairer, more accessible, and more secure so that every eligible citizen can say "My Vote Counts" and know it to be true.
Properly implemented, HAVA can be a cornerstone of California's efforts to reconnect citizens to the electoral process. On the other hand, as one prominent commentator pointed out during a recent public hearing on election reform, we must not let HAVA become the Hurt America Vote Act.
- Every eligible citizen, including those with physical disabilities and limited or no comfort with the English language, can vote privately, securely and independently at the polls, at home, at shopping malls and other public places on or before Election Day;
- Every elections official and poll worker is thoroughly trained and committed to ensuring that every eligible voter is treated with respect and courtesy, and can vote easily and securely;
- Every eligible voter receives written and oral information about candidates, measures and the voting process in simple, accurate terms and in languages they can understand;
- Voters are informed of their rights prior to voting, when they vote and after they vote;
- Voter registration is available on-line;
- Voting machines are easy to use and flawlessly capture and report voter intent;
- Young voters are engaged in the electoral process as voters, poll workers, and interested citizens, with education regarding the voting process beginning at an early age;
- Any eligible voter can cast a properly-formatted ballot in any precinct anywhere in the state or other appropriate jurisdiction on Election Day;
- Overseas and military voters can register and vote conveniently and safely wherever they might be;
- No eligible citizen is turned away at a polling place on Election Day without being able to vote an actual or provisional ballot;
- Election Day registration is available to those who do not register prior to the election;
- Internet and/or telephone voting becomes safe and routine.
HAVA, properly implemented, is an opportunity for instituting further reform in California. It is time to seize the moment — and California will, leveraging HAVA not only to restore confidence in the integrity of the voting process, but also to increase voter participation. "My Vote Counts" must be more than a slogan. It must be a defining phrase that captures the very essence of voting in California.
i. Report of Registration, Secretary of State, February 10, 2003 [back]
ii. Elections Code § 10, Government Code § 12172.5. [back]
iii. Report of Registration, Secretary of State, February 10, 2003. [back]
iv. Stats.2001, c. 922 (AB 1520-Shelley) [back]
v. Public Law 107-252. [back]