I have three words to describe the primary elections held in California this week: What the what? Special thanks go to Tina Fey for coining this apt phrase.
Sure, the outcome of many races was not a surprise, but election night took a few unexpected turns.
First, voter turnout statewide was 18.3%. Read that again. Less than one of the five people who are registered to vote bothered to show up. There are about 17.7 million registered voters in California and just over 3.2 million cast a ballot in the June 3 elections. Over 38 million people live in the state, which means that each person who voted essentially weighed in on behalf of almost 12 others.
Things were worse on the local level with 13.1% of registered voters in Los Angeles County casting a ballot in a variety of contests from County Board of Supervisors to sheriff. More on the sheriff's race in a moment. Over 9.9 million people live in the county, and over 4.8 million are registered to vote. This means that each of the over 636,000 people who voted in Los Angeles County made decisions affecting 15 others.
There are a number of reasons why this is the case. The "biggest" race on the statewide level was for secretary of state, and that office typically does not bring people to the polls, although ironically it is that office that helps run the polls.
The top three races on the statewide level are already done deals. The only question in the governor's race was who would have the honor of losing to Jerry Brown. That distinction will go to relative moderate Neel Kashkari, of Troubled Asset Relief Program fame. Kashkari bested conservative Assemblyman Tim Donnelly, much to the relief of virtually every Republican in the party establishment.
Was the turnout entirely unexpected? No. But this optimistic pessimist was still sorely disappointed.
Now let's talk about what those few who did cast a ballot said.
The secretary of state's race was, as a nursery school teacher might say "very interesting." Indicted and disgraced California state Senator Leland Yee came in third. Why do I start with who came in third? Because more people voted for a politician who was arrested on charges of illegal arms trading, not to mention public corruption, than voted for other qualified and legitimate candidates. To the over 287,000 of you who cast a ballot for Leland Yee, let's have a chat, shall we? Likely some were intentionally gaming the top-two primary system so that their favorite candidate would face off against someone facing prison time. It certainly makes a race easier when a candidate can ask his opponent which types of arms he allegedly attempted to illegally sell. But can that really account for a third place finish?
Another California state senator, Alex Padilla, a Democrat, will face off against Republican Pete Peterson.
Now, back to the sheriff's race. And, as it turns out, back to allegations of corruption. Former Sheriff Lee Baca resigned amid scandal dealing allegations against the department of excessive use of force in jails, problematic hiring practices, and a few other things. As expected, Long Beach Police Chief Jim McDonnell finished first. However, it appears that he fell just short of the 50% of the vote needed to avoid a runoff (he garnered 49.1% of the vote). And who is his opponent? Baca's second-in-command, former Undersheriff Paul Tanaka, who remains under federal investigation.
And finally, I can't finish this rant without discussing a judicial election. I have previously argued that we should not be voting for judges for a variety of reasons. One of those reasons is lack of valuable information about the candidates. Can that be what accounts for the outcome in the contest between Carol Najera and sitting Superior Court Judge James Pierce? Pierce was the only sitting judge to face a challenger in these elections. Najera got 50.4% of the vote while Pierce got 49.6%. The Los Angeles County Bar Association listed Pierce, who has 25 years of judicial experience, as "Well Qualified," while it decided that Najera was "Not Qualified," because she failed to fill out a form and take part in the judicial evaluation process. Pierce also picked up the endorsement of just about anyone making one.
It is difficult to know who to vote for in down ballot, low-visibility races. I spent hours researching the candidates. I made a spreadsheet. Yes, I said "spreadsheet." But elections are a big part of my job. Few voters have or wish to spend the time and energy that it takes to cast an informed ballot. We must find a way to deliver better information to the voters. If and until we do, we can expect to see dismal turnout rates with questionable outcomes.
Jessica A. Levinson is an associate clinical professor at Loyola Law School, Los Angeles, where she teaches election law, money, politics and the Supreme Court, and the campaign finance seminar. She is also Vice President of the Los Angeles Ethics Commission. Follow her on Twitter @LevinsonJessica. She blogs at PoLawTics.lls.edu.