Democracy takes a bow

There were cheers last week about the record or near-record turnout levels in the midterm elections in California, and across the U.S. While the numbers were relatively high—approaching 60 percent in some California counties— they were properly qualified by adjectives such as “midterm,” “off-year” and “non-presidential year.”

Another qualifier included reports of the upsurge in numbers of registered voters in California because of “motor-voter” and same-day registration initiatives. More than 78 percent of eligible adults were registered to vote in California this year, the highest such percentage heading into a gubernatorial election in the past 64 years.

Those who praised this year’s voter turnout as significant also pointed out the fact that the results of all of California’s statewide partisan races (this excludes the superintendent of instruction) had been ho-hum foregone conclusions.

These qualifiers tended to inflate the importance of the 50-percent turnout levels—which were even lower if you look at a turnout percentage of all qualified/eligible voters, not just the citizens who were registered.

There are unfortunate realities of voting in non-presidential years, both here and nationally: Turnout percentages approaching 80 percent in “presidential years” drop to to 50 percent, like this year. Despite early voting and vote-by-mail opportunities, fewer than half of eligible U.S. adults this fall again failed to take their responsibility as citizens seriously enough to vote.

The World’s Greatest Democracy continues to stumble along with elected leaders at all levels—from water boards to Congress and everything in between—who are getting their dubious mandates from a minority of adult citizens. This rule by the minority makes the winners’ inflated sense of entitlement seem unfounded.

That doesn’t mean our halfhearted system is without its leaders. Sometimes out of the pool of election victors, extraordinary, gifted and dedicated public servants bubble up, against all odds. For that we are grateful. However, as long as a majority of adults chooses for whatever reason to opt out of the electoral process, we will all too often get the petty, parochial and myopic leaders we deserve. This year’s victors should be humbled by the fact that they were elected by a minority of the citizens they serve. Let’s hope that these upward trends in voter interest this year continue to grow in the years ahead.

The are other trends in the California electorate that are dramatically changing the nature of political campaigns.

  • It appears as if the so-called millenials—the under-30 crowd—are waking up, voting in greater numbers.
  • Early voting, in person and by mail, meant nearly 80 percent of votes were cast before Election Day.
  • The candidates and many of the winners are increasingly representing our diverse communities, with more women and more minorities seeking and winning public offices.
  • For the first time, the number of California voters registered with no party preference has surpassed those registered with the Republican Party by wide margins in most counties. Voters registered with the Democratic Party remain the largest group.
  • Voters will support some taxes and some bonds, if they fund popular projects. The campaign to repeal the state’s gas tax failed, and bonds were approved for housing and children’s hospitals. Locally, the Gavilan Community College bond, the Morgan Hill cannabis business tax and the San Benito transportation sales tax increase were winning heading into this week’s provisional ballot count.
  • The move to elect local government representatives by district is gaining steam in the state, but in some instances the politicians and voters haven’t caught on. In Morgan Hill, for example, there was little discussion of neighborhood issues by candidates or among voters at forums; citywide issues topped everyone’s agendas. It remains to be seen whether this kind of representation really makes sense for smaller cities.

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