I am genetically programmed to vote. I love elections. But this year was different, and I wasn’t alone: The turnout for the general election on Nov. 4 was only 36.4% of eligible voters, the lowest since 1942, when hundreds of thousands of voters were overseas fighting in World War II.
I don’t fit the profile of typical non-voters who are young, ethnic minorities, not college educated, have family income under $30,000, and weak party ties. But sorting out the ballot this year was so time-consuming, confusing and difficult that for the first time ever, the thought of not voting crossed my mind.
After moving to San Francisco in August, narrowly missing the “top two” primaries, I became a first-time California voter in the general election. I looked up my polling place online and, thanks to the Voting Information Project (a Hewlett Foundation grantee), discovered it is a block from my apartment. But to make sure my long daily commute didn’t thwart me from voting, I requested an absentee ballot to vote by mail. My odyssey had begun.
The Board of Elections sent an envelope stuffed with five ballots covering 25 offices and 18 ballot measures. Of these 43 items, I knew about only five. The thought of researching the remaining 38 was unnerving. How much time would that suck out of my weekend? A lot.
I consulted the “voter information guides” sent by the Boards of Elections. The city and county guide was 224 pages—longer than the novel I’d been struggling to finish on my daily commute. The state elections guide was another 79 pages. And it didn’t stop there; the state also sent a “supplement” with “information about Proposition 1, which was added to the ballot after the first guide was printed”.
With the five ballots unfurled across my dining table and the three voter guides stacked at my elbow, it was time to focus. The five statewide and Congressional races where I knew my party’s candidates? Easy.
Next? The two ballots listing the 18 state and local ballot measures. I realized that, as a new state resident, I had no idea what they were about and, mostly, I didn’t care. The ballot descriptions raised more questions than they answered. I was tempted to skip them.
But Proposition F was about a huge new waterfront development near my apartment. After reading the voter guide’s 15-page (!) description, I was undecided. Online, I read in depth about the developer, the plans, neighborhood impact, pros and cons. I was more confused than ever. Only 17 ballot measures to go.
Deep into researching whether the City should “amend the charter to make retiree health care benefits available to certain employees of the former San Francisco Redevelopment Agency and the Successor Agency,” I started asking myself why I was voting for representatives. Can’t I outsource this homework and decision making from me, the voter, to them, the elected officials? Don’t they have more time to figure this out than I do? Isn’t that their job?
Perhaps I was just cranky. I believe one of the unique strengths of the U.S. political system is that states have the freedom to experiment and innovate and develop their own ways of handling elections. So I told myself: Enjoy this challenge! Then I remembered that both California and New York State are in the bottom quartile of the Election Performance Index published by the Election Center of the Pew Charitable Trusts (another of our Madison Initiative grantees). Perhaps my ballot would never get counted anyway.
But when I saw that the city uses ranked choice voting (RCV) for certain local offices (an innovation advocated by our grantee FairVote), I rallied. I’d never heard of any of the candidates: Could my single, uninformed vote foil the career of a promising new candidate? What if my mistake was replicated by thousands of other under-informed voters? RCV reined in those anxieties by allowing me to vote for three. But in one RCV contest, there was only one candidate; do I vote for her three times, or only once?
As I plodded on, I hit another obstacle—races where the candidates are listed by profession, not party, like the school board. In New York State, where I’m from, nonpartisan elections are rare. New Yorkers like political parties so much that new ones sprout up every election, often thinly disguised avatars of the two major parties. Frankly, on down ballot races, if I don’t know the candidates, I vote my party. Now I’m puzzling over a different issue—what subjective biases does employment bring up? Is a “communications consultant” better for the school board than a “manager/parent”? And why was the profession of one candidate listed as “incumbent”? What’s her day job?
More than four hours into my research, my husband handed me a mailing from our local political party. It laid out in a simple, four-panel, color brochure the photo, name and office for each candidate endorsed by my party, and recommended votes on all the propositions (except one, on which the party declared itself “neutral”. No party help there.) But I don’t want to vote straight party; I want to know what I’m doing.
I went online again and consulted the San Francisco Chronicle’s choices. Where they matched the recommendations of my party, I went with them. That put me in the home stretch.
After returning to the propositions and spending half an hour debating natural grass versus turf on two propositions for a city park, my husband suggested we skip them; since we live miles from the park, the issue didn’t concern us. But I couldn’t force myself to opt out; I made a choice.
And on it went. In total, I spent six hours researching how I wanted to vote. I wasn’t alone. On local radio a week after the election, another first-time California voter described her ordeal and said it took her six hours, too—not including her trip in heavy traffic to buy 91 cents worth of stamps to mail the overweight envelope.
I’m adjusting to my new San Francisco home, and I survived my first election as a California voter. But it’s hard to imagine how modest improvements in election administration, like electronic poll books, shorter lines, or online registration, or more information, or even major changes like different formats for primaries, will solve the problems I experienced. If it takes six hours and an advanced education to get through the ballot, how many non-voters can we reasonably expect to turn out?