Democracy functions best when the most people participate. And if you accept that standard, our democracy is not functioning well.
This is the basis for two voting rights efforts, one at the state level (AB 1461, the “California New Motor Voter Act”) and one directed at the city of San Diego (removing the 50 percent + 1 primary election winner rule), that are attempting to improve the health of our democracy.
But will either of these efforts help cure voter apathy?
AB 1461 is authored by San Diego Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez and would “establish procedures to register a person to vote by application made simultaneously with an application for a new or renewal of a motor vehicle driver’s license.”
In short, the bill would automatically register qualified voters when they fill out the paperwork for a driver’s license.
Voter registration is an important goal. After all, if you aren’t registered, you can’t vote. There is little doubt that making it easier to register to vote is a good thing for democracy. Gonzalez and her supporters in Sacramento should be applauded for this effort.
But simply registering voters doesn’t cure the apathy issues.Last election, for example, voter turnout in the primary was just 20 percent in San Diego County. This means that just one in five voters who were registered actually voted.
So if only 20 percent of the voters who register actually vote, what percentage of those who are automatically registered will actually head to the polls?
Who knows? And quite frankly, who cares? Shouldn’t we be satisfied that more people can vote when election time rolls around?
Yes. And no.
Another, more important question we should be concerned about is voter participation; more specifically, are we doing everything we can to maximize the number of votes a candidate must receive to actually win office?
Recall the 20 percent primary election voter turnout number for 2014. In that year, we had several “elections” that never even occurred on the general election ballot because, under San Diego’s election laws, if a candidate received more than 50 percent of the vote in the primary, they automatically won the election.
That means 20 percent of the registered voting population is choosing the candidate that represents everyone else. And you only need 50 percent of those to win. That means that those representatives are held accountable to 10 percent of the electorate.
You can focus group the impact of this effect on democracy by asking your friends at the dinner table if they feel that their representatives really listen to them. Then ask them if they are excited about voting for anybody in the next election. Then ask them if they think their vote matters.
Internalize those answers and you might conclude that feeling represented today has an effect on a voter’s propensity to vote tomorrow.
If you conclude that having a sense of representation today is healthy for tomorrow’s democracy, we should be doing everything we can to create an election process that is decided when the most people participate.
Granted, the turnout in the 2014 general election was just over 34 percent. This is not a number we should use to promote the health of our democracy, but it is a 70-percent increase from the number of voters who participated in the primary election.So why do we have this rule in the first place?
Publicly, those who support the rule claim that it reduces the cost of running unnecessary elections, both in terms of campaign expenditures and the public cost of administering the election(s).
In reality, this rule is simply an incumbent-politician protection scheme. The scheme helps protect incumbents by: (1) requiring challengers to overcome the incumbent’s name-ID advantage at a time of the “election” during which few voters and media outlets are paying attention; and (2) because so little attention is paid in the primary in local races, like district attorney, for example, that challengers must pay for publicity, rather than earn it; and thus (3) requires anyone who tries to challenge an incumbent to raise a large amount of money.
Want to get money out of politics? Then stop holding primaries six months before the general election.
Want to help democracy? Challenge a system that is designed to elect candidates when the fewest number of voters participate.
And in both cases, we should be supporting local efforts to get more people involved in the democratic process. But only if you believe that democracy functions best when the most people participate.
Editor's note: This article originally published on the San Diego City Beat on July 15, 2015, and has been modified slightly for publication on IVN.