Ben Boychuk

California voters have good reason to stay home

Mike Lee marks his ballot while voting in Sacramento on June 3, 2014.
Mike Lee marks his ballot while voting in Sacramento on June 3, 2014. The Associated Press

Just a few more days now until voters who claim to loathe incumbents return the vast majority of them to Sacramento and Washington, D.C.

Just three days until Gov. Jerry Brown strolls to a fourth term, and until Neel Kashkari, chopper of toy trains and rescuer of drowning children, can return his attention to auditioning for his next radio gig. Just a few more days until Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, Attorney General Kamala Harris and Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones can go back to making mischief undisturbed by the petty annoyance of an election.

But it makes me wonder: If most statewide officeholders couldn’t trouble themselves much with campaigning, why should voters trouble themselves with showing up at the polls?

It says something about the degenerate state of our politics when the most interesting contest in Tuesday’s election involves two Democrats locked in a twilight struggle over California’s teacher tenure and dismissal laws.

You wouldn’t know it from the brutality of the campaign for state superintendent of public instruction, but incumbent Tom Torlakson and challenger Marshall Tuck are in broad agreement about education policy.

More money for public schools? By all means. Implementing the controversial Common Core state standards? Faster, please. Granting public school teachers permanence after three years on the job instead of two? Unleash hell!

The superintendent’s race has been so brutal in part because the policy differences between the candidates are relatively small. Tenure reform is important – the outcome of the Vergara v. California appeal would diminish union power and could have national implications. But if that’s the one issue distinguishing Torlakson and Tuck, is it any wonder they’ve been reduced to attacking each other’s character?

So Torlakson, fueled by $10 million in teachers’ union money, has blasted Tuck for his past work as an investment banker, his lack of classroom experience and his well-heeled Silicon Valley donors. And Tuck – with a much smaller campaign treasury for a guy with so many billionaire buddies – has painted Torlakson as a wholly owned subsidiary of the California Teachers Association and an unscrupulous career pol, which aren’t necessarily false charges, come to think of it.

If Californians don’t show up to vote for either man, can we really blame them?

Pollsters and political scientists fret about diminishing voter turnout. Just 25.1 percent of registered voters in California turned out for the June primary this year. That’s a substantial decline from 33.1 percent in 2012, 33.3 percent in 2010 and 28.2 percent in 2008.

Presidential primaries in 2012 and 2008 didn’t help boost turnout rates much. And our top-two primary system, which has led to blue-on-blue fights such as Torlakson-Tuck, seems to have made no difference whatsoever. It may make matters worse.

Pollsters also like to talk about the significance of the “enthusiasm gap.” This year, likely voters are more excited about Republicans than Democrats. Not so in the Golden State.

The Public Policy Institute of California’s most recent statewide survey painted a portrait of voters who are anxious, tired and increasingly unimpressed with the two major political parties. We’re worried about the sluggish economy, crime and another year of drought. We’re split on whether the state is headed in the right direction – 47 percent say yes; 46 percent say no.

Even though the Golden State remains cobalt blue politically, voters aren’t so hot on the reigning Democrats or the rump Republicans. Forty-six percent of voters in the survey said they have a favorable impression of Democrats, vs. 43 percent with an unfavorable impression.

It’s worse for the state GOP – and when is it not? Just 29 percent of voters expressed a favorable impression of Republicans, as opposed to 59 percent with an unfavorable impression. That’s bad enough, except favorable views of both parties also took a dive in the past two years, from 58 percent for the Democratic Party and 35 percent for the GOP.

What does this mean for likely California voters’ enthusiasm about voting for this sorry lot? The PPIC found 40 percent more enthusiastic than in previous elections, but 42 percent less enthusiastic.

Here again, the numbers are worse than they were in the past two elections. Fifty-three percent of voters said they were enthusiastic about voting in the 2010 gubernatorial election, while 61 percent said they were more enthusiastic about voting in the 2012 presidential election.

A bipartisan malaise is settling over California’s electorate. No surprise, then, that a solid majority of likely voters – 63 percent – would rather have a viable third party than the parties we have now. Anything is better than this.

Ben Boychuk is associate editor of the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal. Contact him at bboychuk@city-journal.org.

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