Midterm checkup: How healthy is California democracy?

Maintaining a healthy democracy is like maintaining a healthy body. Regular attention and checkups are required. Fortunately, each election cycle provides a decent MRI snapshot on California’s democratic process covering multiple areas. This includes voter participation data, the caliber of candidates, quality of campaigns, influence of special interest money, media engagement, and the quantity and quality of debates.


And what does our current midterm MRI show? Sadly, multiple unhealthy underlying conditions exist, including many in plain sight but receiving little attention. It’s not possible to say whether these represent precursor signs or evidence of damage that demands immediate intervention. Either way, this should alarm the patient (us) to break ourselves of many unhealthy patterns.


So with just two weeks until 22 million mail-in primary ballots go out statewide, here is a timely fitness review of the state of California’s democracy:


Voter participation: Applying good bedside manner, let’s start with the hopeful news. Thanks to the 2015 motor voter law, California now has more than 22 million registered voters out of 27 million eligible. Further, 2020 statewide mail-in voting contributed to the highest voter turnout in nearly 50 years, with 71% of eligible voters and 81% of registered voters casting a vote. As healthy news goes, this is akin to lab work coming back showing a healthy immune system. But the usual caveats apply: without a good diet and regular exercise, it can all nosedive.


Candidates: Now for the negatives. A healthy democracy requires healthy competition, and California is amid one of its least competitive eras ever. This is partly due to Republicans representing just 24% of registered voters and not running a prominent candidate in any of the major statewide offices, save perhaps first-time candidate and think-tank pundit Lahnee Chen for state controller. This means no major Republican is running for governor, U.S. Senator, secretary of state or attorney general, and a lack of competition is never good for a healthy democracy.


Further, the number of candidates the CAGOP has endorsed in state legislative and federal races dropped precipitously from 115 out of 153 races in 2020 (76%) to just 77 this cycle (50%). Once some primaries play out, expect a few more endorsements, but therestate Republicans just aren’t contesting huge amounts of the state.


On the other side, the primaries are not exactly hotbeds of competition for Democrats. In the 2020 Democratic presidential primary, just under 50% of all Democratic ballots were cast for either Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren, but California Progressives have yet to shake their minority-faction mentality. Just as the CAGOP has abdicated huge parts of the state to the Democrats, Progressives cede most elected offices to moderate incumbent Democrats. The statewide chair of the California Democratic Party Progressive Caucus Amar Shergill reflected this mindset when he told me right before statewide redistricting finalized, “There is no point in Progressives throwing themselves against a brick wall on losing races.” Instead, he recommended Progressives focus “on a few targeted races.”


These are all symptoms of ossification, as indicated by 30 current members of California’s Congressional delegation who are 60 years or older, including 10 who are 75 or older.


Campaigns: Admittedly, judging the quality of campaigns requires some subjective physician observation. But by all eyeball tests, the 2021 recall reached a new low by featuring fewer serious policy discussions than publicity stunts (John Cox’s bear, anything Caitlyn Jenner, candidates swearing at debates for attention, an in-debate subpoena). Unfortunately, such stunts did get media coverage. So brace for more.


Also limiting serious policy discussions is how most traditional Republican candidates feel penned in by the state GOP’s dominant extremist base. This base is quick to brand anyone a RINO (Republican in Name Only) unless they echo strident views on rigged elections, Trump, Covid public-health policy, the Critical Race Theory boogeyman, and California being “America’s first third-world state,” as the National Review has put it. This results in campaigns of diminishing substance and sustenance.


Debates: This may be the biggest canary in the coalmine. Debates are critical crucibles for publicly exploring policy issues, possible solutions and the candidates themselves. However, California voters haven’t seen a statewide televised debate for any state office in six years. The last came in 2016 when Democrats Kamala Harris and Loretta Sanchez vied for Barbara Boxer’s open U.S. Senate seat. Since then, citizens have voted for governor, seven other statewide Constitutional offices, another U.S. Senate seat, and the 2021 Newsom recall, and none featured a single statewide televised debate. Plus none have been scheduled yet this primary season, despite a fascinating race for state attorney general and many pressing public-safety issues.


On an ad hoc basis, individual media outlets have organized regional debates, but these reach just a fraction of voters. Plus, the quality these noticeably declined during last year’s recall. Consider:

  • None of the four recall debates were broadcast statewide, and one wasn’t even streamed or broadcast live locally.

  • Though Democrat Kevin Paffrath finished first and second in two respected statewide polls and ultimately finished second among all replacement candidates, he was invited to just one debate.

  • The third debate organized by the Sacramento Press Club added to the recall’s circus-like quality when it was interrupted by a candidate being subpoenaed. Not only did organizers lack proper security to prevent this, the process server gained admittance using a ticket passed along by a still anonymous press-club member.

One solution is for California’s academic, civic and media leaders to create an independent, nonpartisan debate commission for statewide races. Such an approach has succeeded Ohio, Washington and Indiana and has added pressure on incumbents to participate and relieved media outlets of most aspects of event management.


Special interest money: At this point, the influence of special interest money in our political system feels like an incurable congenital disease. At the state level, huge special-interest money dominates California’s ballot proposition system, and vast sums of independent expenditures circumvent direct donation limits. Plus, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled last year to allow a Koch Brothers-founded political organization to hide the identities of its donors, creating yet another source of dark money in the system.


Also while California boasts the most esteemed campaign oversight system of any state, the nearly 50-year-old Political Reform Act is starting to show its age and could benefit from updating and increasing of fines. Of course until the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling is overturned, not much can be done to ban or limit obscene corporate and special interest spending; however, the time may be right to explore enacting a robust public finance system funded through a graduated tax system on independent expenditures and the political ad buys of candidates who opt out of voluntary spending limits.


Media engagement: Democracy can’t thrive or persist without public-minded watchdogs actively monitoring the condition of our patient. Unfortunately, the shrinking of newsroom staffs over the last two decades has significantly eroded both the quantity and quality of election coverage. This has left the electorate less informed than at any point in oldest living voter’s lifetime.


For example, few statewide primaries are deeply covered anymore, and local primaries hardly at all. The best voters generally find are empty drive-by candidate listings. Take a recent election story headlined by the Sacramento Bee: “From Congress to sheriff, Placer County has a hot election this June. What you need to know.” Unfortunately what the Bee felt its readers “needed to know” did not include any other context or candidate positions, just lists of candidates running for different offices.


Or consider the homelessness issue. It was a top issue among all recall candidates, but few outlets were moved to actually evaluate their proposals. (CalMatters and this publication did.) Another form of media apathy was typified by the Los Angeles Times editorial board. In its endorsement of Kevin Faulconer on Recall Question 2, it added that Faulconer “should publicly answer questions about his role” in “a sketchy real estate deal” while San Diego mayor. However, during the paper’s hourlong interview of Faulconer, its Ed Board never asked him about it. So if they won’t, then who?


Conclusion


A common resolution every New Year’s is to improve one’s health and get in better shape. In keeping, the Los Angeles Times even suggested in its 2021 end-of-year editorial a resolution to “Save democracy.” But improving the shape of our democracy requires far more than well-meaning words and intentions. It requires concerted follow-up and actual work by candidates, the media ecosystem, and other institutions.


Plus even while California voters delivered a historically high 2020 turnout, we too must do more by demanding more from the political system and news outlets. And it would also do a body (politic) well to regularly vote a few candidates into office who takes no special interest donations.


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