Why is California voter participation so demonstrably low?

VotedSure, it’s been more than half a year since California’s last statewide election. But Californians’ remarkable failure to participate still deserves some attention today as we start focusing on the 2016 elections. In last November’s midterm Congressional election, the largest state in the nation had about the lowest voter participation of any state in the country. Hardly more than 42 percent of California’s registered voters bothered to mail-in their ballots in the conveniently provided pre-addressed envelopes, or even show up at the polls. This dismal voter participation was even worse than voter disinterest in one of the state’s other previous bad showings in 2002 when just over 50 percent of participants elected Gray Davis, the Democrat, over the GOP’s Bill Simon. In neighboring Oregon, voter participation in the November 2014 election at 69.5 percent was more than half again by percentage the level of participation of California voters in the same election.

Why is California voter participation so demonstrably low? Some pundits have offered that last year’s election was not a presidential election when voter interest would be higher and that popular Governor Jerry Brown, who was on the ballot, was destined to cruise to a big victory over feeble Republican opponent Neel Kashkari anyway, thus lessening voter interest. Democrats have a big political registration edge in the state, control every statewide elective office, and have near two-thirds control of both Houses of the state Legislature. And even with low voter turnout, the state bucked the national trend in which the GOP picked up seats in Congress, and Californians who did vote actually expanded the number of Democratic Congressional seats in Washington, D.C., from California by two (though improving GOP representation in the state Legislature just above the critical 33 percent needed to thwart tax-increases).

Yet a recent Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) poll reveals that more Californians, by 46 percent to 45 percent, think their state is headed in the the wrong direction rather than the right direction.

One reason for low voter turnout, and even for failures of the GOP to have made more gains in California in the November 2014 election, could be a failure to give voters a really good reason to turnout and feel their vote will be counted and make a difference. There are after all plenty of GOP and middle-of-the-road, independent voters in the state, as the same PPIC poll says 65 percent of CA voters are center/right, with conservatives, at 35 percent, having the plurality. An earnest young political consultant might conclude these voters just need to be contacted and given a good reason to get fired-up to change the results of many elections in the state.

One election where better voter turnout, perhaps by more focus on core GOP voters who sat on the sidelines and who didn’t get inspired enough to vote might have made a difference was the 52nd Congressional District race in conservative San Diego County. Just four years ago this seat was represented in Congress by Republican Brian Bilbray. But a Democrat won the seat in 2012 and the Republican challenger in 2014 was Carl DeMaio, a former member of the San Diego city council who had lost a close race for Mayor of San Diego. Unfortunately, DeMaio’s campaign became embroiled in a sexual harassment scandal, some key aspects of which were found to have been manufactured against him. Scott Peters, the incumbent Democrat who was thought to be vulnerable in the GOP sweep in other states, ended up winning the election with 51.6 percent, to DeMaio’s 48.4 percent.

Yet a key factor in DeMaio’s loss was low voter turnout. At 49 percent, according to the California Target Book, some observers believe that if DeMaio’s campaign could have brought out the same level of base voter participation as even the lopsided victory of fellow Republican, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield, (about 56 percent), if the campaign not seen the scandal in the press, and had the campaign perhaps redirected resources to simply inspire baseline Republicans to do their public duty and come out to vote in larger numbers, the result could have been quite different, a GOP victory. According to the Target Book’s analysis, voter turnout in the 49th Congressional District where Darrell Issa cruised to a lop-sided 60 percent victory was 47 percent. One need not have a political science degree to understand that voter turnout in the 52nd race was not remarkably different given all the political spending and emphasis of Republicans to win the race; and that many GOP voters had to just pass on making a vote in the race. This observer believes that the problem was a failure to give more focus on peer-to-peer direct-voter contact with core Republicans, and this issue might have repeated itself in several of the other close Congressional races the GOP lost in California in 2014. Hard-core Republican voters were just not given a compelling or convincing reason to vote in the numbers needed to win the races, and especially in the 52nd, which was a winable seat.

Even with comparatively lower registrations in California for Republicans than Democrats, the GOP has great opportunity to win elections in the state and bring reform in the current generally apathetic low voter turn-out environment. A few victories could help Republicans grow in numbers. Voters are truly unhappy with the direction liberal Democratic leaders are taking the state, and if the GOP can better seize on ideas, candidates, strategies and tactics that really motivate conservative and middle-of-the-road voters to return their millions of empty ballot, they can win. Will they?

This article is cross-posted by the Flash Report

Pension initiative may empower local reforms

The leaders of two local pension reforms, former San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed and former San Diego Councilman Carl DeMaio, are working with a coalition on a statewide initiative to help local governments make cost-cutting pension reforms.

DeMaio called the proposal a “tool kit” for local officials to “fix the problems in a manner that reflects their community’s ability.” Reed said the proposal would enable “measures that people can do to make their own decisions in their own communities.”

During a break at the Reason Foundation’s third annual Pension Summit in Sacramento last week, the two men said they are “on the same page” and working with a coalition on the details of a proposed initiative for the November 2016 state ballot.

DeMaio said the state constitutional amendment would apply to the state, cities, counties, other local governments, and the University of California — all the “instrumentalities” of California government.

DeMaio
“I’m very big on making certain that when we move ahead on reform that it’s unassailable in the courts,” said DeMaio.

The California Public Employees Retirement System, which opposed pension cuts in three recent city bankruptcies, and the state Public Employment Relations, which tried to block the San Diego and San Jose reforms, would be covered by the initiative.

“They will have no ability but to implement faithfully the voter’s initiative,” De Maio said.

A case in point for local empowerment: A drive led by David Grau and others gathered enough signatures to place an initiative on the ballot last fall to switch new Ventura County employees to a 401(k)-style plan.

But a superior court judge removed the initiative from the ballot, ruling that nothing in the 1937 act covering 20 county pension systems allows them to “opt out or terminate” through a countywide initiative or a vote of the county supervisors.

Empowering the reform process is a big change from past statewide proposals for a specific plan, such as former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s briefly backed 401(k)-style plan in 2005 or Reed’s lower-cost pension option in 2013. None made the ballot.

“One size doesn’t fit all,” said De Maio.

Reed
Reed said a statewide initiative should be “simple and easy to explain.” He said a “big omnibus” pension proposal is difficult to explain and easy for opponents to mischaracterize.

A structural initiative is common ground for a Democrat (Reed) and a Republican (DeMaio) who led the campaigns for two very different local pension reforms overwhelmingly approved by voters in June 2012.

The San Diego initiative, overcoming a PERB lawsuit to keep it off the ballot, switched all new hires except police from pensions to 401(k)-style individual investment plans now common in the private sector.

In San Jose, the reform gave current workers the option, for pensions earned in the future, of paying more or receiving a lower pension. A superior court blocked the option. Reed said other parts of the initiative have saved $80 million to $100 million so far.

Another thing the two battle-tested reformers have in common is experience in laying the groundwork, moving in steps, and not trying to do everything at once, which seems to be the current strategy of the statewide initiative.

Before the big reform in 2012, Reed changed the San Jose pension boards, adding independence and expertise. He backed two successful ballot measures in 2010 limiting police and firefighter arbitration and allowing switches to lower pension plans.

DeMaio backed a ballot measure in 2006 requiring voter approval of pension increases, city council approval in 2008 of a “hybrid” combining a lower pension and 401(k)-style plan, and a 50-50 employer and employee split of pension costs in 2009.

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Dozens of government employees picketed the appearance of Reed and DeMaio at the Reason pension summit, an early warning from a coalition of public employee unions that a pension initiative may be opposed at every step, including the first one.

Schwarzenegger dropped his 401(k)-style plan in April 2005 after emotional union television ads contended death and disability would be eliminated for police and firefighters and their families, a claim the governor disputed.

After former Assemblyman Roger Niello, D-Sacramento, filed a pension reform initiative in 2011, the union coalition picketed a luxury auto dealership he partly owned, with one sign saying, “Pensions not Porsches.”

Major donors to a new initiative might face the same campaign tactics. The number of voter signatures needed to place a constitutional amendment on the ballot next year is 585,407, down sharply from 807,615 last year due to low voter turnout in November.

But several million dollars probably would be needed for a signature drive, particularly to screen for false signatures (opponents are sometimes accused of providing) and to gather a surplus as a safety cushion.

A news release from the union coalition, Californians for Retirement Security, said the new initiative is expected to be financed by “Texas billionaire John Arnold, a former Enron executive” who contributed to the Reed and Ventura County initiatives.

In San Diego, paid signature gatherers for the pension reform initiative posted at retail stores were often joined by “blockers,” union members and others who urged shoppers not to sign the petition.

Time and money may be needed for court battles after an initiative is filed. Reed dropped his initiative last year contending that Attorney General Kamala Harris gave the measure an “inaccurate and misleading” summary that made voter approval unlikely.

Dan Pellissier of California Pension Reform suspended a pension initiative drive in 2012 “after determining the attorney general’s false and misleading title and summary makes it nearly impossible to pass.”

Pension reform had strong support in a Public Policy Institute of California poll in January last year. Public pensions were “at least somewhat of a problem” for 85 percent of likely voters, and 73 percent supported switching new hires to 401(k)-style plans.

“Without serious pension reform in California, we face a future of cuts to important services and more tax revenues diverted to unsustainable pension payments,” Reed said in a news release last month.

“It is clear that politicians in Sacramento are not serious about reforming unsustainable pension benefits for government employees, so voters must take the matter into their own hands and impose reform at the ballot box,” DeMaio said.

Dave Low, chairman of Californians for Retirement Security, had a different view in a news release issued by the union coalition last week.

“This new effort is likely to eliminate retirement security for millions of more Californians, worsen economic inequality in our state, and undermine the ability to attract and retain quality firefighters, teachers, police and other public servants,” Low said. “We are confident we can defeat it.”

Originally published by Calpensions.com

Reporter Ed Mendel covered the Capitol in Sacramento for nearly three decades, most recently for the San Diego Union-Tribune. More stories are at Calpensions.com.

Pension Reform Duo Sets Target on 2016

The dynamic duo of California pension reform are teaming up in 2016.

Former San Diego City Councilman Carl DeMaio and former San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed, both of whom successfully passed pension reform in their respective cities during their time in office, announced Wednesday their plans to work together on a statewide pension reform measure for the 2016 ballot. Reformers hope to take advantage of easier ballot measure qualifying rules that require the lowest number of signatures in decades.

“Without serious pension reform in California, we face a future of cuts to important services and more tax revenues diverted to unsustainable pension payments,” Reed, a Democrat, said in a press release announcing the effort.

The group points to independent numbers which show the state’s pension liabilities have increased 3,000 percent in a decade. Last November, then-State Controller John Chiang (now state treasurer) pegged the state’s total unfunded pension liability from 130 public pension systems at $198 billion, a dramatic increase from just $6.3 billion in 2003.

Redux of San Diego pension reform fight

Last year, while DeMaio was preoccupied with his campaign for Congress against Rep. Scott Peters, Reed unsuccessfully tried to qualify a similar statewide pension reform measure. However, that effort stalled during the qualification stage over a dispute with Attorney General Kamala Harris over wording for the title and summary. This time around, he’ll benefit from DeMaio’s experience as a grizzled veteran of ballot-measure shenanigans.

“We have done a lot of legal work to make sure this initiative is bulletproof,” DeMaio, a Republican, told Reuters. “Because the unions are going to throw the kitchen sink at us.”

DeMaio knows full well the extent to which organized labor will go to thwart pension reform. In 2011, he led the effort to qualify San Diego’s Comprehensive Pension Reform measure for the 2012 ballot. The CPR measure forced all new employees into a 401(k)-style plan and capped contribution levels for current employees.

Labor organizers deployed activists to block signature gatherers and frighten potential signatories with misleading claims that signing would put them at risk of identity theft. At the time, longtime San Diego political operative T.J. Zane, who now serves asexecutive director of the San Diego Republican Party, described the San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council’s signature-blocking efforts as “unprecedented in its scope and ferocity.”

After the measure qualified for the ballot, San Diego voters overwhelmingly passed Proposition B in June 2012 by a two-to-one margin.

Chuck Reed: Pension reform in San Jose

At the same time DeMaio was reforming pensions in San Diego, Reed, then-mayor of San Jose, was leading a similar effort in Silicon Valley. Reed’s Measure B passed by an even larger margin: 70 percent to 30 percent. The Wall Street Journal praised Reed’s efforts and described him as “that rare creature, a Democrat in a liberal bastion who is nonetheless focused on salvaging government finances while inviting the wrath of public unions and their political allies.”

Ultimately, courts effectively gutted the most important provisions of Reed’s measure.

“San Jose’s was the most far-reaching, in that it challenged the core obstacle to serious pension reform in California,” Steven Greenhut, one of the state’s leading experts on pension reform, wrote at City Journal. “But a Santa Clara County Superior Court judge gutted the reform measure, saying San Jose could cut its employees’ pay, but not their pension benefits.”

Even after the negative court rulings, Reed’s successor has begun to further distance the city from Measure B in a bid to make “peace in the city’s pension wars.”

Broad-based coalition for reform

The proposed statewide pension measure for 2016 already has received some harsh criticism as the work of two washed-up politicians.

“2 out-of-work pols @carldemaio & Chuck Reed plan to attack @CalPERS, retirees with #pension measure in 2016,” tweeted Democratic political consultant Steven Maviglio. CalPERS is the California Public Employees’ Retirement System, America’s largest public-pension system.

In anticipation of push-back from local governments, state pension funds and organized labor, Reed and DeMaio have made it a point to build a broad-based coalition that sets aside their different political parties.  The coalition also will include David Grau of the Ventura County Taxpayers Association. Last year, after collecting thousands of signatures, Ventura County’s pension reform proposal was removed from the ballot, according to CalPensions.com.

“CalPERS has dedicated itself to preserving the status quo and making it difficult for anybody to reform pensions,” Reed recently said of the effort. “This is one way to take on CalPERS, and yes, CalPERS will push back.”

It’s unclear whether the proposed ballot measure will be drafted as a statute, which requires 365,880 valid signatures, or a constitutional amendment, which requires 585,407 valid signatures.

Originally published on CalWatchdog.com

CA GOP looks ahead to broaden base

Analysts expected it, but it hurt all the same. The gains in the California Legislature were welcome. But in state-level races, California Republicans did not enjoy the same tidal-wave election results as their fellow party faithful across the country.

For decades at the national level, moderate, centrist and liberal Republicans have urged the GOP to pivot leftward on social issues in order to broaden the size of the party’s base. But in California, that strategy has long been baked into the cake of the political establishment’s culture — and it hasn’t turned back the Democratic tide.

That’s why California Republicans have begun to look even more closely at social issues amid this year’s disappointing — but not crushing — elections. To begin with, the limits of liberalizing have become apparent even among Democrats.

Nationwide, Democrats were widely judged to have badly miscalculated that identity politics would suffice to drive voter enthusiasm and win close contests. Party elites and opinion-makers have begun to argue that Democrats must focus on an economic message over a culture one.

For California Republicans, two takeaways have emerged. First, a further turn to the left on social issues may not translate into more votes. Second, a tilt back to the right probably won’t do much either.

Importantly, while the substance of identity politics failed Democrats, the symbolism also foundered. Wendy Davis’s strongly gendered campaign for Texas governor was a painful flop even by the low standards of this year’s elections. She lost to Republican Greg Abbott, 59-39. That was even worse than Republican Neel Kashkari’s 59-41 loss to Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown here in California.

A Washington Post post-mortem was headlined, “Wendy Davis’ campaign was even worse than you thought.” It reported on an internal campaign memo which warned way back in January of a “lurch to the left. … There is not a model where a candidate who appears this liberal and culturally out of touch gets elected statewide anywhere in the south — much less in Texas.”

Unsuccessful candidacies

In one notable instance, a California Republican whose identity implicated social issues lost — but not for that reason. After a high-profile and costly race, Carl DeMaio had to concede defeat to incumbent Rep. Scott Peters in their fight for the state’s 52 Congressional District.

As U-T San Diego reported, “DeMaio positioned himself as a ‘new generation Republican,’ potentially breaking new ground as a gay Republican in Congress. Peters ran on his bipartisan record and had substantial support from the business community.”

Two years ago, DeMaio, a former San Diego councilman who helped push pension reform, lost another close election for mayor to Democrat Bob Filner, who later was forced to resign due to personal scandals.

Although it has never been easy to unseat an incumbent in a state where the dominant party has a strong advantage, DeMaio’s experience paralleled that of a second gay Republican candidate. Richard Tisei, running for the 6th District in Massachusetts, lost out to Seth Moulton, a Marine veteran of the Iraq War who had defeated incumbent Democrat Rep. John Tierney during the district’s primary race.

In Tisei’s case as well as DeMaio’s, voters in a deep-blue state didn’t jump at the chance to vote for a credible, competent and openly gay Republican.

But in DeMaio’s case, importantly, the margin of defeat was very narrow, indicating that few Republican voters were deterred by the political implications of DeMaio’s sexual orientiation.

Although allegations of sexual misconduct by DeMaio toward staffers did cloud the campaign waters in the home stretch, Gregory Angelo, executive director of the Log Cabin Republicans, told the Atlantic magazine that he didn’t believe anti-gay attitudes caused DeMaio to fall short.

Pot issue

At the same time, at least one social issue — the legal status of marijuana — continued its movement toward the mainstream in a way that Republicans could capitalize on.

In recent remarks before members of the press, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., said his view from the Golden State counseled a liberalized, and pro-liberty, attitude toward pot. For more than two decades representing coastal Orange County, one of America’s most conservative areas, he just won-reelection, 64-36.

“The members of the Republican Party just should become more practical if nothing else,” he said. “The American people are shifting on this issue.” He warned the change would “make a difference in the election of some very close races.”

This article was originally published by CalWatchdog.com.