Column: California Republicans see what happens when more voters vote, and they don’t like it one bit

Democratic U.S. Rep.-elect Katie Porter of Irvine speaks Nov. 16 at her first news conference since defeating incumbent Rep. Mimi Walters (R-Laguna Beach). Was it lax voting rules, or did the voters just prefer her?
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

California Republicans, drummed out of office by the carload in the recent election, have exited whining.

They’ve figured out why they got thumped so badly, and it’s simple: California, that dastardly state, allowed voters to vote. The result was that seven Republican House seats turned Democratic, including all four in Orange County, transforming that once reliably GOP stronghold into a blue streak.

“I just think it’s weird,” outgoing House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) said of California’s system of allowing every vote to be counted, even if it’s filed with local election officials days after election day. “California defies logic to me.”


There’s no evidence of ballot box shenanigans.

— Former California GOP Chair Shawn Steel

Ryan wasn’t alone in implying, if not stating outright, that something illegal happened in California. Rep. Mimi Walters (R-Laguna Beach) issued a fund-raising appeal immediately after the election, accusing Democrats of “trying to steal this Republican seat.”

Let’s be candid about this: Walters’ claim was despicable. The two-term member of Congress offered not a whit of evidence, and her bid for a recount has gone nowhere. She lost, according to the final count, by more than 11,000 votes and almost four percentage points. To smear the electoral process as your own political career is ending merely raises the question of whether you ever deserved a seat in the House to begin with.

The GOP’s focus on California is understandable, given its decline in the state. But it’s probably a mistake for the party to avoid noticing that its problems are more widespread. Ryan lamented that the party was down by only 26 seats on election night but today, three weeks later, its losses come to 40. California, however, accounted for only five of those late gains.

The most comprehensive whine about California’s vote has come from Shawn Steel, a former state Republican Party chair, writing in the conservative Washington Times. Steel’s argument deserves careful scrutiny, especially since he concedes at the outset that “there’s no evidence of ballot box shenanigans” in California.


Instead, Steel complains, California has changed its voting laws to allow more voters to vote. Taking Steel’s particulars from the top, they are:

1. Noncitizens voting. Steel wrote, “Some California communities allow even illegal immigrants to vote.” That’s true, but it’s not relevant to the House outcome, since noncitizens can’t vote for congressional candidates in California or anywhere else in the country. Noncitizens are permitted in some jurisdictions to vote in local elections. Is this a big issue? Steel’s lone example is San Francisco, where a tide of 49 noncitizens were registered to vote in a school board election.

2. Criminals voting. Steel is exercised about California rules allowing “convicted criminals” in county jails or on various forms of probation or supervised release to vote. But he’s talking mostly about those with misdemeanor convictions, who are allowed to vote nationwide, or those who have served their sentences. “Just about the only criminals barred from voting in California are felons in prison or on parole,” he writes, but he doesn’t explain what’s wrong with that.

Steel grouses that California actually does allow “felon voting,” but that’s just gaslighting. He’s referring to the downgrading of some felonies to misdemeanors under Proposition 47 of 2014, which passed by an overwhelming 60%-40% vote. The measure reduced some cannabis possession and petty theft counts, including shoplifting and check kiting, to misdemeanors, and allowed anyone previously convicted of felony counts for those offenses to petition to change their records. But by definition, the charges no longer were felonies; in other words, this isn’t “felon voting.”

3. ‘Motor voter’ problems. Steel goes to town on this one, and he’s got something of a point — just not as much as he claims. There’s no evidence of “fraud,” as he calls it, as opposed to technical glitches. As my colleague John Myers reported in September, the system allowing Californians to register to vote at the DMV was something of a mess, affecting 23,000 of the 1.4 million voter registration files sent to elections offices between the inception in late April and early August.

About 1,600 of these errors involved people who did not intend to register to vote. No illegal immigrants were mistakenly registered to vote, officials say. Some errors involved changes to voters’ party preferences, but there’s no evidence that the errors favored Republicans or Democrats, and in any case such errors wouldn’t even affect California primaries, since party preference is no longer a factor in those votes, much less the general election.


4. Teen preregistration. The state has begun registering 16- and 17-year-olds to vote, in preparation for their casting ballots after they turn 18. Steel calls this “a thinly veiled effort to capture voters while they’re young and more likely to identify as liberal Democrats” and notes that “of the nearly 89,000 minors that participated in the program, only 10 percent registered as Republicans.”

There’s an obvious solution to this for Republicans: Start advocating policies that young persons find appealing, rather than the racist, anti-immigrant, anti-LGBTQ pap that the GOP has become identified with. Maybe then more young people will register as Republicans.

5. Absentee and conditional ballots. Steel complains that absentee ballots were mailed to every voter in some counties, a system that will be expanded statewide in 2020. So what? Steel also observes that absentee ballots have to be postmarked by election day, but are valid if they’re received within a given number of days. Again, so what? If your interest is in making sure that all valid votes are counted, then by definition a vote cast by election day — and verified by a postmark — should be valid and given a grace period to arrive at the election office.

Then there’s the state’s rules allowing voters whose ballots have been rejected to have a chance to fix them. Federal judges in Florida and Georgia have ordered similar arrangements.

Finally, there’s “ballot harvesting,” which the GOP seems to have decided is a fount of fraud. California allows anyone, including campaign workers, to submit an absentee ballot for a voter. In most states, this task has to be done by a voter or family member. Steel asserts that California’s rules allow for coercion, but he can cite only one alleged case, involving an Assembly race between two Democrats last year in which a single voter claimed a campaign worker pressured him to turn over his completed absentee ballot to her. He refused.

When pressed, Republicans acknowledge that they lost for far more conventional reasons. Ryan, speaking at a Washington Post event after the election, admitted that money played a role.


“We got massively outspent,” he said. “You get a couple of billionaires dropping a hundred million dollars on your head, that leaves a mark.”

This is an amazingly hypocritical remark, considering the extent to which the GOP has relied on the patronage of billionaires such as Sheldon Adelson and the Koch brothers over the years — President Trump even awarded Miriam Adelson, Sheldon’s wife, the Congressional Medal of Freedom this month, after her family donated more than $87 million to GOP candidates in the midterm elections.

Ryan’s complaint was echoed by Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Costa Mesa), who got turfed out after a 30-year career in the House — quite likely because of voters’ discontent with the GOP efforts to roll back the Affordable Care Act and the tax cut bill and its costly effect on many California taxpayers (though Rohrabacher voted against the measure). “The reason I lost and we lost,” he told The Times, is because you had Bolshevik billionaires who pumped in enormous sums of money to defeat us. That was it.”

Ryan also conceded that Republicans faced “midterm head winds, which are traditional things, and we do have to face up that there’s a suburban voter issue that we do have to attend to.” He’s speaking in code: He means President Trump, who is turning off suburban voters by the thousands.

Steel may be right to warn Republicans that they face even stronger head winds in 2020. And he may be right that their ills have something to do with greater enfranchisement in states such as California. But it’s not about fraud — it’s about more voters coming to the polls with reasons to vote against GOP policies.

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