|Office of the Chancellor / Public Affairs||
Monday, November 1, 2004
Sacramento Bee 11-1-04
Dan Walters: Californians still frustrated by state's dysfunctional politics
While President Bush and challenger John Kerry campaign nonstop in a handful of states whose electoral votes could decide their increasingly contentious duel for the White House, the nation's largest state is out of the loop.
Californians may, however, be unaware that they are being taken for granted, and that everyone puts their 55 electoral votes solidly in Kerry's column. The forecast from Secretary of State Kevin Shelley is that a record number of Californians, about 12 million of them, wanting to play a role in the down-to-the-wire national race between Bush and Kerry, will have cast ballots by Tuesday.
"By all accounts, there is tremendous interest in this presidential election," Shelley said in a statement that accompanied his forecast that 73 percent of the state's 16 million-plus registered voters would cast ballots. Indeed, millions of Californians have already voted via mail.
Whether Shelley's forecast proves true or is wishful thinking - he's under critical scrutiny for his handling of campaign contributions and federal voting funds and needs a well-managed, high-turnout election to bolster his image - the state's deeper political malaise is almost palpable.
Voter participation in nonpresidential elections is continuing to decline and as it does, California's politics have become increasingly dominated by voters who are older, white, more affluent and more ideologically polarized than Californians as a whole - and by politicians and interest groups that cater to those narrow characteristics and eschew larger visions of a fast-growing, fast-changing state.
The noncontests for president, U.S. senator, and all but a handful of 153 legislative and congressional seats testify to the disconnect between real California's myriad issues - population growth, transportation congestion, housing, health care and water to name but a few - and its contemporary politics. Not only are real political contests rare, but the few that exist hinge on matters that have little or nothing to do with that reality. Character assassination, financed by millions of dollars in interest group money, is the norm.
As real issues are ignored, either in campaigns or in the governmental processes that follow, Californians' frustration builds and those with causes bypass a legislative process that wallows in trivia and interest group agendas and take their nostrums to the ballot. The 16 ballot measures that California voters will decide this week are, in large measure, manifestations of that frustration. Indeed, one of them - Proposition 62 - is directly aimed at changing the system by which we elect officeholders in California in an effort to make it more relevant to the state's reality.
California's disgust with an irrelevant political structure has been dissected in a new research paper issued by the Public Policy Institute of California, focusing on the 2002 election.
PPIC's researchers view that election, dominated by the narrow re-election of Democratic Gov. Gray Davis, as a watershed of public discontent. Relying largely on polling of voter attitudes during the 2002 campaign, PPIC pollster Mark Baldassare and his research colleagues concluded that "the 2002 election generated the largest campaign spending and the lowest voter turnout in state history" and that the plethora of campaign ads so disgusted potential voters that they stayed away in droves.
"Some candidates are winning elections by spending enormous amounts of money on TV ads - usually negative - but it could be costing them power and legitimacy in office if these tactics turn people off from voting," Baldassare said. "High voter registration in the current presidential election is encouraging, but the long-term trends for California's state elections are comparatively grim."
Later events proved the point. Californians held their noses and re-elected Davis, albeit very narrowly over a gaffe-prone challenger, but a year later they recalled him and installed actor Arnold Schwarzenegger as his successor. Schwarzenegger promised to resolve problems that Davis had either caused or ignored, but implicitly he also promised to restore Californians' confidence in a dysfunctional political system.
The jury's still out on that one.
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