Something in the Air

We’ve got to get together sooner or later

Because the revolution’s here, and you know it’s right

—Thunderclap Newman, “Something in the Air”

Joel Bellman

In 2020, the voting revolution will be here, and I only hope it’s right.Last fall, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a little-noticed bill that moves up California’s 2020 primary by three months to March 3, 2020, purportedly to increase our clout in the presidential nominating process. Recall that the Trump train was already high-balling to the finish line by the time California Republicans got to vote in June 2016, so the implication here is that we would be in a better position to derail it next time, assuming he hasn’t already been impeached and removed.

Still, it’s hard not to be a little cynical about the motive for doing this. For one, nearly 90% of Republicans polled nationally in June approve of the job Trump is doing, and in a May poll even 80% of California Republicans approved. So peddling the idea that the California GOP will hit the brakes is absurd on its face. Moreover, the bill moved up the primary date for congressional and state legislative races, arguably to spare the cost of running two separate primary elections and depressing voter turnout. But it will also have the salutary effect for incumbents of shaving off three months of potential fundraising and media exposure by challengers, putting a thumb on the scale for current officeholders.

If past experience is any guide, it may not even matter much. We held early primaries in February from 1996 to 2004, but instead of successfully pushing our way to the front of the line, other states still cut in ahead of us. In 2008, we moved the presidential primary up to February, and still it had little effect on the selection process (and worse, we also wasted millions of taxpayer dollars that year on a separate, ultra-low-turnout state primary). In 2012, California reconsolidated the primaries and moved them back to June. But now, having failed to learn the lessons of history, we are doomed to repeat it in 2020.

On the local front in Los Angeles County, we’ll also have something else to contend with: the advent of the VSAP (Voting Solutions for All People) program, the collapse of several thousand neighborhood polling places into a few hundred regional vote centers and the replacement of Election Day by an 11-day election period. In theory, the new system will boost voter turnout, increase public confidence, improve security, ease the workload for election staff, and save taxpayers money. Or so we are told.

One thing, however, is already certain: what the program will not and cannot do is enhance the personal experience of individual interactions on an intimate scale. Instead of a dozen voting booths for a few hundred voters in a handful of precincts at your local elementary school, you’ll travel to a regional facility with a bank of hundreds of machines serving up to 30,000 voters. And stretching out the process over nearly two weeks will leach out much if not all of that sense of drama and expectation that voting day has always entailed.

At the outset of our journey along the civil rights trail last May, over a dinner of fried chicken and greens at Pittypat’s Porch Restaurant in Atlanta, I compared political notes with several lawyer friends, and mentioned that I was glad we were scheduled to be back in time for the California June primary, so we could vote in person with our son. “Oh, yeah,” agreed one of my fellow diners. “Voting at your local polling place is a shared experience in democratic participation.” Not a privilege, but a right—and more than a right, an obligation of citizens in a free society.

A few days later, after a sobering day of visiting museums and memorials, my wife and I relaxed in our Birmingham hotel room and watched the 2014 documentary “Freedom Summer,” about the hundreds of northern college students who traveled south to Mississippi in 1964 to register poor blacks to vote and teach black children in “freedom schools” the history they otherwise couldn’t learn. And there, in the middle of the film, was an interview with my dinner companion. He had been one of those freedom summer volunteers who risked his life to protect the voting rights of people he didn’t even know, and never once mentioned it to us.

So we can tinker all we want with election dates and voting systems. It might help at the margins. But none of these innovations to “maximize stakeholder participation,” as the VSAP website promises, will ever recapture the passion, idealism, and civic commitment that we already lost long ago.

Joel Bellman
Joel Bellman

Joel Bellman worked in journalism and local government in Los Angeles for 35 years. He now teaches and writes on politics and pop culture. He can be contacted at jbellman@ca.rr.com

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