Most Californians haven’t voted yet and probably won’t. This is why I am one of them

(Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times)

Most Californians haven’t voted yet and probably won’t. This is why I am one of them

Election 2024, California politics, homepage news

Erika D. Smith

March 5, 2024

For the past month, my ballot for the upcoming primary election has been collecting dust on my kitchen counter. I walk past it every day. I even put a pen on it as a reminder to fill it out, to fulfill my civic duty. But I couldn’t even bring myself to pry open the seal.

And I’m far from the only one.

Of California’s roughly 22 million registered voters, that’s only about


had returned their ballot


. Paul Mitchell, vice president of Political Data Inc., expects turnout will eventually reach 30%, one of the lowest in recent history.

He and other experts offer a variety of explanations for why this happens. The main one is that very few people are enthusiastic about voting or


don’t feel the need to vote because not much will change anyway.

For example, in the primaries to nominate candidates for president, both the Democratic and Republican parties virtually decided the winners. Like it or not, we’re getting a geriatric rematch: Joe Biden vs. Donald Trump.

The battle in the Senate to succeed Laphonza Butler, who was appointed to the seat after Dianne Feinstein’s death, is another example. Although the race is shaping up to be one of the most expensive in California history, few voters seem concerned because it is all but certain that a Democrat will win in November, leaving partisan control of the Senate remains unchanged.

Add to that your garden variety procrastination. Plus, many voters are so busy working multiple jobs, trying to make ends meet and raising their families, that they do

may not even know that elections are taking place. It’s not surprising that the percentage of returned ballots is so poor.

But I suspect there is something else going on and it could be


A common reason for voter apathy in the coming decades, assuming our democracy will last that long.

We used to hear: “Vote for who you think is the best candidate for office or who best represents your interests.”

Now it’s about the massive gamification of elections.

More fantasy football than rooting for the red or blue home team. More chess than checkers. There is a slow shift in thinking about voting


as a simple act of civic duty. Instead, it will be a series

strategic decisions and complicated calculations


in a desperate attempt to choose

to create

a government of politicians

that will actually improve our lives.

In practice, gamification is like obsessively reading polls in an attempt to gain an edge or dispel rumors about your party. Or ‘wasting’ your vote on the candidate you want to win, even if the polls say he won’t win, because you want to send a message to the political establishment. Or, my favorite, vote for a candidate you don’t like during the primaries so that a candidate you like can win the general election.

Of course, this isn’t all new. We’ve been told for decades to “vote for the lesser of two evils.” The electoral process in this country has always been imperfect.

But with so many democratic ideals at stake in such an existential way and with razor-thin margins for many candidates running for office in a deeply divided and gerrymandered country, the gamification of elections suddenly seems necessary to get the outcomes you want .

“There’s this thing where a lot of regular voters are acting almost like the TV commentators they watch on Fox News or on cable,” Mitchell told me. “A lot of our news now is infotainment, and a lot of the infotainment around politics is like the gamesmanship of sports. It’s like postgame analysis of elections. And then people get into that postgame analysis mode when they think about elections. “

Just think of the plethora of third-party presidential candidates who could appear on the ballots in some, but certainly not all, states this November. This election season in particular, rogue candidates could be used as particularly powerful players for gamification.

According to the latest poll from the UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies, co-sponsored by The Times, Biden leads Trump by 18 points among California voters when the race is underway.


. But if there are more candidates in the mix, for example, Cornel West, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. or Jill Stein, that lead drops to 12 points. Polls in swing states came back with similar results.

Biden could lose the election if enough people turn away from the complex calculations of gamification and choose to vote for a third-party candidate or simply stay home.

These people also exist. Many of them.

In recent months I have been to busy campaign rallies for West and Kennedy. I’ve met countless supporters who said they’ve heard all the warnings about using their votes to enable Trump’s return, but they don’t care. They don’t want to play the game. They either choose a candidate they like, hoping to push our political system further to the left or right, or they choose not to vote at all.

As a 30-year-old black woman told me in January, as she waited for West in a line so long it stretched


the door of a coffee shop in Leimert Park: “I’m looking for something different and something that suits me. I’m not tied to a certain party. I feel like I just need something that I can relate to And someone who really sees me as an individual.”

If that candidate isn’t on her ballot, she won’t bother filling it out.

Then there’s the gamification we saw two weeks ago in the Democratic presidential primaries in Michigan.

More than 100,000 voters, many of whom are Muslim and Arab-American, are fed up with the Biden administration’s policies toward the war and resulting humanitarian crisis in Gaza.


, chose ‘not recorded’ on their ballots. It was a protest vote, intended to put pressure on Biden


to call for a permanent ceasefire or we will lose crucial support in the Midwest swing state.

There was division on social media about what it all meant for the November elections. Real and self-styled experts argued authoritatively that these voters either sent a strong message to Biden or accomplished nothing at all, depending on whether one chooses to count the actual number of uncommitted votes or just the percentage.

I won’t go into the Rorschach test. But to further gamify the system, activists are pushing for similar protest votes in other states, including Pennsylvania, Minnesota and Washington. At least in Washington it seems to be catching on, with a large union,


UFCW 3000, which endorses the uncommitted tactic ahead of that state’s March 12 primary.

However, I agree with Maxwell Stearns, a law professor at the University of Maryland and author of “Parliamentary America: The Least Radical Means of Radically Repairing Our Broken Democracy.” He describes what happened in Michigan as a “profound breakdown” of our electoral process.

“What that really shows is that there is a lack of meaningful options to take an intense position that contradicts the party you naturally align with, because of our two-party system,” he told me.

Stearns’ book lays out a multi-step strategy for reforming our elections to make it easier to elect better candidates without having to resort to such gamification. And yet you could argue that the well-intentioned reforms we’ve already seen, whether ranked elections or open primaries, haven’t helped much. “These are things that worked great in my college-level game theory course,” Mitchell said. “But in application, there are opportunity costs associated with a change in the election system.” That opportunity cost could be voter confusion or, in my case, fear and avoidance.

Which brings me back to why my ballot is still sitting unopened on my counter. It’s about the Senate race.

If I were to vote for the candidate who best represents my interests, it would be Rep. Barbara Lee of Oakland. But I also want an infusion of progressive politics in the Senate, and I worry that voting for Lee would undermine that.

In the primaries, Republican Steve Garvey is supported by 27% of likely voters, followed by Rep. Adam B. Schiff of Burbank with 25%, according to the UC Berkeley/Times poll. In addition to Lee, who is at 8%, the other progressive candidate, Rep. Katie Porter of Irvine, has 19%.

In a general election of the top two candidates, and I don’t even need a poll, this ship would easily beat Garvey in predominantly Democratic California. But a race between Schiff and Porter would be much more exciting, and Porter would likely drag Schiff further to the left. And I should note that this is only happening because Schiff’s campaign rigged the election, allowing Garvey to increase turnout among Republican voters in the primaries.

So, to gamify or not to gamify? I asked Mitchell what I should do.

“Vote for who you like in the races where you know who you like,” he replied. “And if you don’t know who you like in a race, just skip it. Make your life easy. Get your ballot in.”

I got the same advice Sunday night from a black woman who drove from Long Beach to attend a rally for Lee in South LA: You just have to hope and vote.” She echoed Lee herself, who told voters Monday not are


according to the polls, because that’s the game.

For example, I’m tired of playing. I’ll dust off my ballot and vote for Lee.


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