Democracy Away from Home
Non-Native Californians’ Reflections on Californian Democracy
Denny Chan and Lauren Davis
November can be an exciting and anxious time. In the law school universe, students begin bracing themselves for the impending onslaught of final examinations. Perhaps more importantly, in the greater sociopolitical context of our country, Americans (depending on the year) have the opportunity to engage in one of the most important privileges and responsibilities our democracy affords us: voting. As two out-of-state students (Michigan and Texas/ Connecticut/Washington), this month’s midterm election marked our first ever participation in a California election. Because state and local jurisdictions are typically in charge of election administration, election procedures vary greatly from state to state. We wanted to share our individual observations and reflections on our first California election as some food for thought about the vibrancy of our nation’s democracy.
- As a state with many non-English proficient residents, California provides extremely accommodating language access measures. Whether it be under obligation by federal law or the local jurisdiction’s choice, I was pleasantly surprised by the readily accessible election materials—signs as well as ballots—in Spanish, Chinese, Korean, and Vietnamese. I encountered multilingual poll workers who wore labels that clearly identified them as proficient in specific languages. These indicators serve as a reassuring reminder of the robust protections that exist for language minorities in the United States, particularly in light of a long history in this country of systematic disenfranchisement of otherwise eligible but non-white voters at the polling place, like English-only requirements. Although the state’s language access measures are far from perfect, many jurisdictions across the country struggle with language access at the ballot, so California seems at least ahead of the game in this regard.
- On the other hand, the language of the propositions was extremely confusing. While waiting in line to vote, I had to text my friend to make sure I correctly understood the language behind Propositions 20 and 27. Apparently, those propositions were essentially mutually exclusive. First, it defies logic to order the redistricting propositions as 20 and 27. Such a large gap with interrupting non-related propositions in between throws off even the sharpest voter. Secondly, the complicated (dare I say vague) wording of the propositions raises concerns for a fully informed and deliberate electorate. If law students—presumably well-educated and intellectually sound individuals— struggle to understand what propositions mean, it is reasonable to infer that other voters will also face similar, if not more pronounced, difficulties. Not only are propositions difficult to understand, but a subsequently related difficulty is understanding the effects of propositions. Giving a fiscal impact assessment of a proposition may be one necessary piece of information that voters need to make a fully informed decision, but it alone is insufficient. Furthermore, voters cannot be expected to make responsible, reasonable decisions if they do not know what they are voting for, and unfortunately, cultural and social norms may pressure voters to vote in an arbitrary, “eeny, meeny, miny, moe” fashion.
- On the topic of propositions, California has an enormous number of propositions compared to other states. During my time as an eligible and registered voter in Michigan, I saw many hot-button issues via propositions, like affirmative action, gay marriage, and medical marijuana. But the breadth of issues that go before California voters in every election makes other states look almost lazy. The proposition-heaviness of California’s elections also implicates some interesting questions about direct democracy. At first blush, having more propositions seems to cut in favor of democracy, making government more accountable and responsive to the people’s will. On the other hand, one must question whether members of the general electorate are qualified to make extremely detailed decisions about how our government runs. My skepticism exploded during this month’s election when I overheard a voter waiting in line openly ask, “Is this a presidential election?” Perhaps she is an extreme example, but the point is that seriously under-informed voters pose a democratic hazard in proposition-heavy elections.
- The “bipartisan” positions also pose a problem. While I appreciated the statements the candidates had the opportunity to provide, the only identifying information given in ballots was the candidate’s name and occupation, which confused me. Fortunately, I caught myself favoring a retired teacher over a businessman (based solely on my preconceived notions of those career trajectories) and decided to simply abstain from voting for the positions I had too little information to make an informed decision. It was extremely tempting, however, to vote simply based on occupation because it was one of the few pieces of information I had. Also, what happens in a predominately white, upper middle-class community when one of the “bipartisan” candidates has a last name like “Gonzales” or “Hwang”? Although I did not vote in an “eeny, meeny, miny, moe” manner, I wondered how many people had employed capricious voting tactics and how that may have affected the outcome.
- Finally, our draconian and racist immigration restrictions have caused the de facto disenfranchisement of people of color. A few days before the election, I asked my roommate, an immigrant from Columbia, if she planned to vote. “In two years,” she responded. So, even though my roommate has lived and worked in this country for almost a decade, she will not be able to vote until she becomes a United States citizen in two years. She is not alone. While a more-than-substantial minority of this nation is Latino, Congress continues to pass laws (without much opposition) that directly limit the eligibility of recent immigrants from Central and South America to vote through citizenship. But hope is on the horizon. In less than 20 years, the children of hundreds of thousands of immigrants will be eligible to vote, and neither the Tea Party nor other not-so-closeted racists will be able to do anything about it.
Although we do not want to draw broad generalizations based on our single experience, we hope our thoughts and reflections of this November’s midterm election offer some meaningful commentary on the state of democracy in California. Indeed, our country has come a long way since the days of the poll tax and grandfather clauses, but the empirical reality is that our system has major kinks that need to be ironed out before our democracy can be fully functioning and responsive to the needs of all its people.