I've been writing about California, its schools, its politics and its government for a decade. I've met thousands and thousands of key players in these fields. Yet when I went to my local polling station in Los Angeles to vote today, I had the same reaction that most Californians have: Who the heck are these people?
Sure, I know the people in the high-profile races for U.S. Senate and governor, and most of the folks running for other statewide posts like superintendent of public instruction. But there were pages and pages of judicial candidates that I couldn't pick out of a police line-up. A state assembly candidate I had never heard of. And candidates for Republican central committee (I'm a Decline to State and very much non-partisan, but exercised my right to request a Republican ballot today because the races were more interesting).
There are two ways to react to these long, overloaded ballots. First is what I did today: I refused to cast a vote in any race in which I was unsure. The second reaction is what the state needs to do: Change the system so that ballots aren't full of offices and candidates people have never heard of.
How to do that?
First, eliminate elections for judges and for lower-ranking statewide officers who could just as easily be appointed. I'm thinking of the attorney general, the superintendent of public instruction, the controller, the treasurer and the insurance commissioner.
Second, change the way we elect state lawmakers. Right now, voters choose a candidate that, in all likelyhood, they have little hope of knowing. Most voters don't even know the shape of their local district, and most cast a ballot based on party affiliations. Instead, seats could be divided up in each region of the state in proportion to voter preferences.
Don't follow? Let's say that instead of having dozens of Southern California legislative districts, there were three big regional districts: one for LA County, another for Orange County, another for Riverside and San Bernardino. Voters would be able to choose from party lists of candidates. If the LA regional district had 30 seats, and Democrats won 60 percent of the votes and Republicans 40 percent, the Democrats would get 18 seats and the Republicans 12 seats. (In practice, many proportional systems allocate votes in more complicated ways--but I've over-simplified here for clarity).
Voters of both major parties would have at least some representation. And the mix of representatives would more closely approximate the preferences of voters. And voters wouldn't have to have that uneasy feeling as they cast a ballot for candidates they know nothing about.