Column: Most Californians haven’t voted yet. Blame the gamification of elections

A worker holds paperwork, with other workers in the background
Workers at the new ballot processing center in the City of Industry.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

For the past month, my mail-in ballot for the upcoming primary election has been sitting on my kitchen counter collecting dust. Every day, I walk by it. I’ve even put a pen on top of it, as a reminder to fill it out, to do my civic duty. But I haven’t even been able to bring myself to pry open the seal.

And I’m hardly the only one.

Of California’s roughly 22 million registered voters, only about 14% had returned their ballots as of Monday. Paul Mitchell, vice president of Political Data Inc., expects turnout will eventually hit 30% — ranking among the lowest in recent history.

He and other experts offer all sorts of explanations as to why this is happening. The main one is that very few people are excited about voting or they don’t feel the need to vote because not much will change either way.


A poll co-sponsored by the L.A. Times shows the Democratic congressman and the former Dodger strongly positioned to be the two candidates in the general election.

March 1, 2024

In the primary races to nominate candidates for president, for example, both the Democratic and Republican parties have pretty much decided on winners. Like it or not — and most of us do not — we’re getting a geriatric rematch: Joe Biden versus Donald Trump.

The Senate race to succeed Laphonza Butler, who was appointed to the seat after the death of Dianne Feinstein, is another example. Although the race is shaping up to be one of the most expensive in California’s history, few voters seem to care about it because it’s all but certain that a Democrat will win in November, leaving partisan control of the upper chamber unchanged.

Add to that your garden variety procrastination. Plus, many voters are so busy working multiple jobs trying to make ends meet and raising their families that they may not even know there’s an election happening. It’s not surprising that the percentage of returned ballots is so paltry.

But I suspect something else is going on too — and it could become a more prevalent reason for voter apathy and cynicism in the decades to come, assuming our democracy survives that long.

We used to hear: “Vote for who you think is the best candidate for the office or who best represents your interests.”

Now it’s about the mass gamification of elections.

More fantasy football than rooting for the red or blue home team. More chess than checkers. There’s a slow shift underway from thinking of voting as a simple act of civic duty. Instead it’s becoming a series of strategic decisions and complicated calculations made in a desperate attempt to create a government of politicians who will actually improve our lives.


In practice, gamification looks like obsessively reading polls in an attempt to gain an edge or dispel rumors about your party. Or “wasting” your vote on the candidate you want to win, even if the polls say they won’t win, because you want to send a message to the political establishment. Or, my favorite, voting for a candidate you don’t like in a primary to help a candidate you do like win the general election.

Sure, not all of this is new. We’ve been told to “vote for the lesser of two evils” for decades. This country’s electoral process has always been imperfect.

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But now, with so many democratic ideals at stake in such an existential way and with razor-thin margins for many candidates running in a deeply divided and gerrymandered country, the gamification of elections suddenly seems necessary to get the outcomes we want.

“There’s this thing where like a lot of regular voters are almost acting like the TV commentators they watch on Fox News or cable,” Mitchell told me. “A lot of our news is infotainment now, and a lot of the infotainment around politics is like the gamesmanship of sports. It’s like the postgame analysis on elections. And then people get into that postgame analysis mode when they’re thinking about elections.”

Just consider the plethora of third-party presidential candidates who could appear on the ballots in some, but certainly not all, states in November. This election season, in particular, rogue candidates could be used as especially powerful players for gamification.

According to the latest UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies poll co-sponsored by The Times, Biden leads Trump by 18 points among California voters when the race is mano-a-mano. But when additional candidates are in the mix — Cornel West, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. or Jill Stein, for example — that lead falls to 12 points. Polls in swing states have come back with similar results.


Biden could lose the election if enough people are turned off by the complicated calculations of gamification, and choose to vote for a third-party candidate or just stay home.

These people exist, too. Lots of them.

In recent months, I’ve been to packed campaign rallies for West and Kennedy. I’ve met numerous supporters who’ve said they’ve heard all the warnings about using their votes to enable Trump’s return, but they don’t care. They don’t want to play the game. They’ll either choose a candidate they like, in hopes of pushing our political system further to the left or right, or choose not to vote at all.

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As one 30-year-old Black woman told me in January, while waiting to meet West in a line so long that it stretched out the door of a Leimert Park coffee shop: “I’m looking for something different and something that feels true to me. I’m not tied to any particular party. I feel like I just need something that I feel like I can resonate with. And someone that sees me truly as an individual.”

If that candidate isn’t on her mail-in ballot, she won’t bother filling it out.

Then there’s the gamification we saw with Michigan’s Democratic presidential primary election two weeks ago.

Fed up with the Biden administration’s policies toward the war and the resulting humanitarian crisis in Gaza, more than 100,000 voters, many of them Muslim and Arab American, chose “uncommitted” on their ballots. It was a protest vote, designed to pressure Biden to call for a permanent cease-fire — or lose crucial support in the Midwestern swing state.

Social media exploded with division over what it all meant for the November election. Real and self-proclaimed experts argued with authority that these voters had either sent a powerful message to Biden or had accomplished nothing at all, depending on whether one is choosing to count the actual number of uncommitted votes or merely the percentage.

I won’t weigh in on the Rorschach test. But looking to further gamify the system, activists are pushing for similar protest votes in other states, including Pennsylvania, Minnesota and Washington. In Washington, at least, it seems to be catching on, with a major union, UFCW 3000, endorsing the uncommitted tactic ahead of that state’s March 12 primary election.


I will, however, agree with Maxwell Stearns, a law professor at the University of Maryland and author of “Parliamentary America: The Least Radical Means of Radically Repairing Our Broken Democracy.” He frames what happened in Michigan as “a profound breakdown” of our electoral process.

“What that really reveals is that there’s a lack of meaningful options to register an intense position that is in opposition with the party that you naturally align with because of our two-party system,” he told me.

Indeed, Stearns’ book lays out a multi-step strategy for reforming our elections to make it easier to elect better candidates, without having to resort to such gamification. And yet, one could argue that the well-intentioned reforms we’ve already seen, be it ranked-choice voting or open primaries, haven’t helped much.

“These are things that worked great in my graduate level game theory course in college,” Mitchell said. “But in application, there’s an opportunity cost that goes with a change in the election system.”

That opportunity cost can be voter confusion — or, in my case, angst and avoidance.

Which brings me back to why my ballot is still sitting unopened on my kitchen counter. It’s about the Senate race.

If I were to vote for the candidate who best represents my interests, it would be Rep. Barbara Lee of Oakland. But I also want an infusion of progressive politics in the Senate and, gaming the race, I worry that voting for Lee would ultimately undermine that.


In the primary, Republican Steve Garvey is backed by 27% of likely voters, followed by Rep. Adam B. Schiff of Burbank at 25%, according to the UC Berkeley/Times poll. Meanwhile, Lee is at 8% and the other progressive candidate, Rep. Katie Porter of Irvine, has 19%.

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In a general election of the top two candidates — and I don’t even need a poll for this — Schiff would easily beat Garvey in mostly Democratic California. But a race between Schiff and Porter would be much tighter, and Porter would probably drag Schiff farther to the left. (And I should note, bitterly, that the only reason voters are in this situation is because Schiff’s campaign gamified the election, boosting Garvey to increase turnout among Republican voters in the primary.)

So, to gamify or not gamify? Vote for Lee or for Porter? I asked Mitchell what I should do.

“Vote for who you like in the races where you know who you like,” he responded. “And if you don’t know who you like in a race, just skip it. Make your life easy. Get your ballot in.”

I got similar advice on Sunday night from a Black woman who had driven up from Long Beach to attend a rally for Lee in South L.A.: “You’ve just got to hope and vote.” She was echoing Lee herself, who on Monday told voters not to be discouraged by the polls because that’s the game.

I, for one, am tired of playing. I’m dusting off my ballot and voting for Lee.