I got turned on to politics when I was 8. It was the 1968 election. The rise and fall of Bobby Kennedy. Then Richard Nixon vs. Hubert Humphrey. I had a puzzle of the United States and each piece was a state. As Walter Cronkite announced the returns, I would write each state's electoral votes onto its corresponding puzzle piece. And keep score.
From then on, politics was like an action movie, and I was hooked on the battle between the good guys and the bad guys. Which is why an April Pew Charitable Trusts report on California elections breaks my heart.
In the study, California ranked 49th in the nation on how well we run our elections. We were one of only two states that offered zero — zippo — look-up tools on our state election website to allow voters to easily locate their polling places or check if they're registered. (The secretary of state hopes to remedy part of that soon. Her office is working with Pew and the counties to develop a statewide tool to help voters find their polling places.)
Our pathetic elections infrastructure fuels abysmal voter registration rates. California ranks 45th in the nation in voter registration. There are almost 6.4 million Californians eligible to vote but unregistered, more than the population of 33 states.
As a result, the state's electorate does not reflect who we are or who we're becoming. Whites are nearly two-thirds of California's likely voters but less than half the state's population. Homeowners, people with high incomes and older Californians are most likely to be registered. Unregistered Californians tend to be people of color, younger and less wealthy, and they are our fastest-growing populations. Seventy percent of Californians under 25 identify as nonwhite, according to the U.S. Census.
If the voting population doesn't represent the state, neither will the decisions coming out of Sacramento. It's as simple as that.
But maybe my favorite cliche is true: It's always darkest before the dawn.
Covered California — the state's Obamacare exchange — is mailing voter registration cards to 4 million Californians who shopped on the exchange for insurance. The cards are being sent out in hard-to-miss envelopes, in different languages, and they're postage paid.
The healthcare exchanges, because they offer a public service, are required by the National Voter Registration Act to offer voter registration. It took months of advocacy by groups like the ACLU and others to make it happen, though. The voter registration mailing may be the largest such effort in recent history, according to elections experts. Moving forward, Covered California's insurance shoppers will also be offered voter registration services online, in person and by telephone.
California, it's hoped, will serve as a model for other state exchanges.
Of course, Rush Limbaugh lambasted the efforts as "a massive Democrat voter registration drive." Although his accusation of partisanship is dead wrong, he's right that those getting the registration cards are likely to have made use of Obamacare, and any friend of Obamacare is probably a threat to Limbaugh's interests.
That may explain why state officials have been almost mute about the mailing. Perhaps they're worried their efforts will further inflame opponents of Obamacare. But what is there to be afraid of? That the opponents of Obamacare will spend millions on negative TV ads? Schedule dozens of congressional votes to repeal it? Last time I checked, they were already doing these things.
A slew of laws in other states have passed in recent years whose stealth purpose is to suppress voter turnout. Last week, a judge in Wisconsin struck down one of them, a law that would have required voters to present picture IDs at the polls. Like the Covered California effort, it too was good news for democracy.
But we can do more. For example, why do we vote on Tuesdays? Why not change the law so we can vote on weekends, when people are off work and have time to get to the polls? Democracy is at its best when the most people participate.
My son turned 18 last year. I told him as long as he lives in our house, he has to vote, just like he has to unload the dishwasher. But I hope he and millions more Californians embrace voting as an adventure and a right, not as a chore.
Daniel Zingale is a senior vice president of the California Endowment.