A look into the upcoming California elections.
January 9, 2012 1:06 p.m.
Kim Alexander, President and Founder of California Voter Foundation
Related Story: What's New For California Voters?
CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. Tomorrow, the 2012 presidential primary season officially gets underway as voters in New Hampshire pick a Republican candidate. The American media pays a lot of attention to election politics, but not so much to the process of elections themselves. That's where the California voter foundation steps in. It's a nonprofit that works to improve elections so they better serve the needs and interests of voters. I'd like to welcome my guest, Kim Alexander is president and founder of the California voter foundation. Welcome to the show.
ALEXANDER: Thanks for having me.
CAVANAUGH: First of all, when is the California primary this year?
ALEXANDER: Oh, that's a good question. It would be the first Tuesday in June. And that would know -- I'm just looking at my calendar. We should know these things. That would be June 5th. Yes. June 5th.
CAVANAUGH: Now, back in 2008, if I remember correctly, we had a California primary in February. It was part of what they were calling super Tuesday.
CAVANAUGH: Why did that change?
ALEXANDER: Well, California has experimented with our primary for the last several presidential elections. And we traditionally have had a June primary. But we moved it to first March back in 2000, we had a March primary in 2004, trying to get California to have a voice in the selection of presidential candidates. And the March primaries were still too late for California voters to weigh in on the presidential primary selection process. So California tried something new in 2008, and we had a bifurcated primary, where we had the approximate presidential in February. But we had the rest of the contest still on the ballot in June, which saw a really abysmal turnout. So that was probably one of the main reasons. It was very expensive to split the primaries, and even though it gave California a voice, it really cost the state a lot in terms of money. And we saw that really poor turnout in that primary. So I think that was one of the main reasons the state went back.
CAVANAUGH: Now, in June, we have a new open primary. How does that change things for voters?
ALEXANDER: It's going to change a lot of things for voters. And that's another thing. Not only have we varied the date of our primary, but we've changed the rules around in our primaries for the last several election cycles. And so this is something new again for voters. We have basically an open primary system that gives more choice to everyone in the primary. But less choices in November. Basically what happens is for the first time, it won't matter what party you're registered to, if you want to vote for a candidate of another party, you can crossover and do that. And you can vote for --
CAVANAUGH: So Democrats can vote for a Republican in our primary? For a Republican presidential nominee in June?
ALEXANDER: No, this applies to all contests except the presidential.
CAVANAUGH: Oh, okay.
ALEXANDER: And also party central committee contests. So it's very confusing. I talked to our local registrar here in Sacramento today about what their plans are for implementing this, and basically what voters and counties will stay across the state, there will be one ballot that has everybody on it, except for the presidential candidates and the federal committees. It'll have the major and minor party candidates for all the partisan contests for legislature and Congress. Then there will also be an additional ballot card for democratic voters to vote in the democratic primary for president. Republican voters to vote in the Republican primary for president. So the party primaries for president will still be able to be reserved just for voters of those parties, unless those parties decide to open up their primaries and allow voters of other parties or independent voters to vote in a presidential partisan primary, which the Democratic Party has done in the past, but the Republican party does not do.
CAVANAUGH: I see.
ALEXANDER: So it's very complicated.
CAVANAUGH: Yes, it certainly is. As president of the California voter foundation, do you think this new idea for an open primary is a good idea?
ALEXANDER: I think it's a good idea in that it is going to give voters more choices. And particularly, you know, one thing we saw with redistricting in California is even when you have an independent commission draw the district, it still is the case that our districts are huge. Our Senate districts are bigger than congressional districts. And if you are a person of, you know, a party that's not well-represented in your region, and you want to have a voice in the process, I think this open primary process is going to give more voters more of a voice at the local level in voting for congressional and legislative contests that many voters may have felt they have had in the past. For example, a democratic voter living in Orange County might feel they don't have much of a choice, or a Republican living in San Francisco might feel they don't have much of a voice in primaries. So it is going to give more people more of a voice. But in some ways, it's going to give some people les of a voice, because minor parties are not going to, for the most part, be qualifying for that November ballot. Basically what's going to happen is the general election will become more of a -- I'm sorry, the primary election will become more of a general election, where everybody can vote on everything. Then the general election makes more of a runoff election like what you see at the local level. The top two vote-getters from the ballot will proceed to the general even if they're of the same party.
CAVANAUGH: I see. Tell us a little bit about what the California voter foundation does. What are the kinds of things that you look at as you're evaluating whether the elections are really serving the interests of voters?
ALEXANDER: Well, some of the issues that we're focused on currently deal with trying to standardize the voting process across the state. There are a lot of procedures on the grouped, and it makes -- on the ground, and it makes it difficult for these organizations and groups like our, the secretary of state to help education voters approximate what to expect when they vote. The procedures on the ground will vary so much from county to county, and sometimes from polling place to polling place. You have different standards that poll workers are being trained by. And that makes it difficult for people to know what rights they're entitled to when they vote. We're trying to impose standardization in the voting procedures. And that's something I know the counties would like to see as well. It makes a lot of extra work for them to have to create everything Anew. There are a lot of opportunities within this challenge to get counties to do the same thing across the board. And we'll be working with some of the counties on that. The place I'm most concerned about in it implementing this new rule is really the independent voters because we've seen with our past primary voting processes so much confusion when it comes to the voting rights of California's nonpartisan voters, which comprise 20% of our state's registered voters. It's a huge portion of California's voting population. And these voters' rights are often not able to be fully exercised at the polling place, simply because they're not fully informed about their voting choices, and the poll workers aren't fully informed about their voting choice either. There's a lot of education that needs to be done all around. And that's one of the things I'm worried about, going into June, is that we're in a situation where not even the candidates are necessarily clear about what's going to happen. People are in new district, the districts have new numbers. So definitely there's a lot of education that needs to be done.
CAVANAUGH: One of the ways to improve voter education is supposedly the use of the Internet. You recently completed, I know, a survey with the pew center that assessed the way state election websites are acceptable to voters, and supplying them with information. How kid California do?
ALEXANDER: California compared to other states did not perform well, because of our state lacks all of the voter look-up tools in this study. We looked at every state election website to see whether there was a way for a voter to go online and check whether they were registered to vote at their current address or not, find their polling place, view their sample ballot, and check their absentee and provisional ballot status. And all states but two had those tools. California and Vermont were the only states in the nation that don't offer any of those five look-up tools for voters. A lot of voters don't realize that counties administer elections, they don't realize -- they look to the secretary state for information. People may not know what county they live in, or the county they used to live in am soap we've been advocating for a state-wide lookup tool. California did well in content. The state's state election website is excellent and comprehensive in providing information on all the voting issues in California, and also in multiple languages.
CAVANAUGH: One thing that really rankles you as president of the California voter foundation is the number of Californians who are not registered to vote. What is that proportion?
ALEXANDER: It's significant. 27% of our eligible voters are not registered. That's about 6.4 million people. That is a huge number of people that aren't registered. This is why we'd like to see some of these look-up tools made available. We know from studies that we've done about barriers and incentives for voter participation in California that a lot of people are not registered to vote simply because they've moved and need to reregister. And they forget. If we could make it simple for someone to go online to a state-wide website, you could go online and type in your name and your street address and check if you're registered to vote on the that address or not. It would give people a chance to get their registration update the if they need to before election day, rather than finding out on election day when it's too late to do anything about it that they're not registered at their current address and can't vote.
CAVANAUGH: Instead of finding new ways to help people find ways to register to vote there seems to be an effort this year to make it more -- to really verify the people who are coming in and asking to register to vote. Do you agree with that? Is there a problem with a lot of voter fraud in the country?
ALEXANDER: There is not a problem with a lot of voter fraud in California. I can't speak for the whole country.
ALEXANDER: But I do think that the voter ID issue is a bit of a problem -- a solution in search of a problem. But that said, I will say it's one of the most frequent questions I'm asked by voters. Why don't we have to show ID when we vote? And I think there's a lack of information again, in the polling place, informing voters about voter participation laws. It is a matter of perjury to sign someone else's name in the voter role and vote for someone else. You can go to jail for doing that. But there's not a lot of notice at polling places about how severe the penalties are for commits voter fraud.
CAVANAUGH: One of the things that I think might come as a surprise is that counties as you say, administer elections, and yet sometimes they are required to do things that they don't have the money to do. And you wind up with a voter of poor election process because of that.
ALEXANDER: Yeah, it's a huge problem, actually. And some of the things I've only recently come to fully appreciate. But that is that counties administer elections, it's one of the biggest unfunded mandates in the state government that you can imagine. The counties bear the cost for putting on all state and federal elections, they receive no money from either the state or federal government for simply conducting elections for those levels of government. I think they should. And because all of the money is discretionary, and there's no federal or state matching funds provided to counties for this service, they're subject to more cuts than everything else. If you are looking at a county budget, and there's transportation funding, there's education funding, health fund, all the funding that's being put up by the county, a lot of it's being matched by state or federal grant dollars. That's not happening in elections. So that's why election fund suggest so susceptible to cuts at the county level, especially in these difficult financial times that we're in.
CAVANAUGH: Some people say the answer to this is just have people vote online. Are you in support of that?
ALEXANDER: No, certainly not. There are a lot of things we can do with the Internet, and one of the changes that's coming in California is online voter registration. And that is something that we can do, and many other states are doing, in a secure and verifiable way. But there's a big difference between online voter registration, and online voting. The biggest difference being that an online voter registration matter is a matter of public record. A ballot on the other hand is secret, and by law has to remain secret. A voter who registered online can be confirmed, they can check their record online, make sure it's accurate. And a voter who votes online cannot do the same without that ballot no longer remaining secret. And that's just the start. There are so many reasons why the Internet is not ready for online voting, in addition to that particular challenge of trying to protect ballot secrecy. I would never say never. But a lot of people have learned that the Internet is not as secure for all kinds of other sensitive transactions than we would have liked to have thought that it would have been in the past. So I think we still have a lot of work do. And maybe an spiral different Internet platform to consider before we think about online voting as an actual feasible solution.
CAVANAUGH: Finally, Kim, the cal access website recently went down for several weeks. That's the website for people who are trying to follow the money in California raises.
CAVANAUGH: It recently came back up. Why did it any down, and do you think it's now going to be reliable?
ALEXANDER: I don't know. I -- my organization worked very hard in the '90s to change the laws to require online filing and disclosure of campaign finance data, and California scores very well in our nation-ed with studies we've done in the past to access to campaign finance data. We really hope that that resource can be sustained. But one of the problems is that it is an old site. The technology behind that service is old. And the secretary state's office has been struggling to try to keep it up-to-date, to find people who can manage it. There's a need are in a whole new process to be built there; both for the candidate filing side, and for the public disclosure side. And so, you know, it's going to be important to put that money in the secretary of state's budget this year to make sure that that process can be rebuilt and sustained.
CAVANAUGH: I've been speaking with Kim Alexander, she's president and founder of California voter foundation. Heading into her busy season. Thank you so much, Kim.
ALEXANDER: Thanks for having me.