By Michael Feinstein. Inside/Outside. May 6, 2019

How we vote in Santa Monica will be changing radically starting in 2020.

Under SB 450, sponsored in 2016 by Santa Monica’s State Senator Ben Allen — and meant to increase voter turnout by making it easier to vote given the complexities of modern life — neighborhood-based, precinct voting on Election Day will be eliminated. In its place, every voter will receive a ballot in the mail that they can return by mail or cast in person at strategically located drop boxes, starting 28 days before and up through Election Day. Additionally, voters can cast their ballots in person at any of multiple Vote Centers dispersed around the county, starting ten days beforehand and running through Election Day.

This is an opt-in program – Madera, Napa, Nevada, Sacramento and San Mateo counties implemented Vote Centers in 2018. Los Angeles County has opted in for 2020.  A workshop on vote center implementation will be held Tuesday, May 7 in Santa Monica at the Thelma Terry Center in Virginia Ave. Park, 6-8pm, hosted by the L.A. County Registrar-Recorder and League of Women Voters of Los Angeles. 

How might SB 450 impact Santa Monica?  It’s instructive to review the evolution of early voting in California.

Origins of Vote By Mail

Voting by mail in California was first introduced in the 1860s to give the state’s Civil War soldiers the ability to participate in elections back home. Its use was relatively limited for many years afterwards, but in 1978 AB 1699 (Lehman) allowed  “no excuse” absentee voting, where voters could request an absentee ballot each election without a reason.  In 2001, the legislature approved AB 1520 (Shelley), allowing any Californian to become a permanent absentee voter. In 2007 the legislature renamed “absentee voting” “vote by mail” (VBM).

With these changes, California’s VBM rate has steadily increased, topping 50% by November 2012 and reaching 65% in November 2018. In other words, the trend towards early voting in California is long underway, and Vote Centers and drop boxes will likely increase it further.

Effects of Early Voting

Early voting can favor candidates with early big money to pay for expensive direct mailers to reach early voters, compared to candidates whose grassroots campaigns develop over time.  It can lower the effectiveness of door-to-door campaigning, because many voters will already have voted when reached by door-knockers. And it can limit the ability of voters, candidates and the media to respond to developing campaign issues, because once a vote is cast, it’s too late.

When I was first elected to the Santa Monica City Council in November 1996, I campaigned door-to-door more than any other candidate — especially in the Pico Neighborhood. Ultimately I finished second out of 13 candidates for four seats with 13,684 votes, while the fifth place finisher had 12,129. On Election Day, I received the most votes cast at the polls. But in the VBM, the well-known fifth place finisher was second with 1,919 votes and I was seventh with 1,428. As a first-time candidate, my campaign was still developing.

What if more people had voted early by mail back then? In 1996, vote-by-mail ballots made up 16.6% of votes cast for City Council in Santa Monica. By 2016 it was 42.1% and by 2018, 50.2% – an increase of 302%.

Ultimately I served eight years on the City Council including two years as Mayor.  But with today’s VBM rates, perhaps I wouldn’t have been elected in the first place.  Yet on Election Day 1996 with more voters having more complete information, I was elected overwhelmingly.

Local Races Forgotten

It’s easy to miss this side of the equation because California uses winner-take-all, single-seat ‘top two’ elections to elect its state legislative and Congressional representatives. Such elections produce ‘us vs. them’ general election contests between only two often polarized choices, with most voters knowing where they stand early on.

But local non-partisan, multi-seat municipal elections like in Santa Monica are different, where voters elect three or four seats together at a time. A voter may be clear about some but not all of their multiple choices — especially in highly competitive years when there are many top tier candidates — and be swayed by community-based candidate forums and candidates going door-to-door late in the campaign. But if the system’s incentive is to vote earlier, many voters will do so based upon lesser information – and often overlook multiple important municipal decisions in the process.

Democracy Holidays

Instead of short-circuiting the campaign season and favoring early big money in politics, why not explore increasing voter turnout on Election Day first? We could make primary and general election days state Democracy Holidays, keep the polls open til 11:59pm for people who have to work on holidays, and combine precinct voting and vote centers so people can vote anywhere in the county.

At the same time, we could expand the reason for people to vote. Most developed countries with higher voter turnout than the United States elect their legislatures using proportional representation elections from multi-seat districts. In these elections voters win representation in proportion to their numbers, and more voters help elect someone who truly represents their views. Therefore more voters are motivated to vote in the first place.

System Change not Climate Change

Senator Allen has been promoting pro-democracy pillars since he was first elected in 2014 – from sponsoring campaign finance reform (SB 254 placing Proposition 59 on the ballot regarding overturning the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision); to allowing local governments to enact public financing programs for local elections (SB 1107); to permitting cities and counties to establish non-advisory independent redistricting commissions (SB 1108), all in 2016.

This year Allen’s SB 212 local options bill would grant cities, counties and local education agencies the ability to choose to conduct ranked choice voting elections for local elections. Other key related legislation in recent years includes same day voter registration (AB 1436 – Feuer, 2012), pre-registration of 16-year and 17-year olds (SB113 – Jackson, 2014) and a variety of public disclosure acts promoted by the California Clean Money Campaign.

All of these positive changes – along with SB 450 – are meant to get the most of our current electoral system.  But therein lies the rub – and the next opportunity.

Before Allen and many other current democracy reformers were elected, the legislature placed Top Two elections on June 2010 ballot without holding public hearings, primarily in response to political extortion to obtain the final Republican vote needed to pass en eight-month late state budget, back when budget approvals required 2/3.

Then a multi-million dollar corporate funded ‘yes’ campaign barely prevailed in a low turnout primary election tilted towards more conservative voters overall (compared to a general election), and where the generally more conservative VBM primary voters voted ‘yes’ and the Election Day primary voters voted ‘no’.  Then two years later, the legislature eliminated general election write-in voting without a vote of the people (AB 1413 – Fong).

As a result California has perhaps the most austere version of single-seat, winner-take-all elections in the U.S., where voters are only allowed two general election choices — often very narrow ones — where smaller parties are mostly eliminated from the ballot, many voters are driven by lesser-evilism, and substantial portions of the population are unable to elect anyone who directly represents their views.

Increasing turnout into this kind of system that provides limited representation for millions of Californians is missing the forest for the trees. It’s time to see our democracy as an ecosystem, where our interconnectedness is reflected by everyone having a seat at the table.

This is where the state legislature needs to turn its attention next, and conduct hearings into alternatives to Top Two.

Michael Feinstein is a former Santa Monica Mayor (2000-2002) and City Councilmember (1996-2004) and was a 2018 Green candidate for California Secretary of State. He can be reached via Twitter @mikefeinstein

Inside/Outside‘ is a periodic column about civic affairs Feinstein writes for the Daily Press, that takes advantage of his experience inside and outside of government.


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