Moodian: How to be an Informed Voter on Election Day

Finally, after what has seemed like an endless election cycle, November 8 is upon us. While the world awaits the result of the U.S. presidential election, Orange County residents will have a multitude of propositions and down ticket races to decide. What concerns me is that local government has the most immediate and direct impact on people’s lives, yet many county residents likely could not name their mayor or supervisor. There is a focus every two years on Get Out the Vote efforts, but being an informed voter (rather than simply voting) is much more important and much harder work. Citizens are bombarded with news coverage on Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump every day, but they have limited information on local races and initiatives. Therefore, I offer these suggestions before you enter the voting booth.

  1. Do your homework ahead of time. It is far too late to make your decisions in the election booth. Many voters do, and that is why ballot designations are considered important and candidates are elated when their names are listed first. Search for information on your candidates online. Visit their websites, but more important, search for news coverage on them in sites such as Voice of OC and the Orange County Register.
  1. Scrutinize campaign mailers and attack ads. Direct mail is a very effective way to obtain votes in local elections, and attack ads can be nasty and harmful. Many of these attack ads are funded by special interests that worry that a particular candidate’s election will affect negatively their bank accounts. (Note Voice of OC’s recent coverage on the unprecedented amount of money Disney is spending on Anaheim city council races as one example). These mailers, whether positive or negative, are propagandistic. Investigate their claims further.
  1. Ignore slate mailers. These are the postcard-sized mailers that voters receive listing a slate of candidates as the Democratic Choice, Conservative Choice, Law Enforcement’s Choice, etc. In reality, most are highly deceptive and a cost-effective way for candidates to promote themselves. The companies that create the slate mailers often publish the names of whichever candidates pay them to do so. Some candidates campaign successfully by buying slots on as many slate mailers as possible. Throw these in the recycle bin when you receive them. They are useless in making informed decisions.
  1. Ignore signs. They tell you nothing of substance about candidates and should also be ignored. Separately, every campaign should commit to removing all of them from public areas the morning of November 9.
  1. Endorsements from public officials are overrated. Politics is tribal, and while it may seem impressive that a candidate is endorsed by a number of public officials, the reality is that this is a you pat my back/I pat yours game. These endorsements are often not made based on a passionate backing of an individual who will improve the community, but rather, as a return of favors and relationships. Rabble-rousers and challengers to the system receive fewer endorsements than loyalists and establishment types. The endorsement that should matter most is yours.
  1. Contact the candidates. It is too late to do this now, but in future elections, write the candidates on your ballot and ask them questions that matter to you. They (or a campaign representative) should write you back. If not, this is a good indication of how responsive they will be to individual citizen needs if elected.
  1. Read both the Times and Register’s endorsements. Both newspapers cut through the weeds and provide unique perspectives on candidates and propositions that are clearer than what you may read in the voter information guide. Read both newspapers because you will receive a more complete picture by understanding differing views. It should tell you something when occasionally the two newspapers’ editorial boards agree.
  1. Incumbents have a tremendous advantage over other candidates. Change that. It is very hard to defeat a candidate who has the incumbent designation under his or her name. Many voters who are unaware of who they are voting for may simply select the incumbent because it is a safer option. Concurrently, incumbents often see it as an advantage when they have multiple challengers because those candidates tend to split the antiincumbent vote. What has this frequent support of incumbents done for the county? Orange County’s former sheriff recently served a prison term and the historically inept Board of Supervisors aided and abetted a county treasurer responsible for one of the largest municipal bankruptcies in American history. Orange County incumbents are generally mediocre officials at best, but they are very good at winning elections.

Please do your research and vote wisely.

The top-two primary system

California voters in 2010 approved Proposition 14, which means that the top two vote receivers for statewide office races in the June primary advance to the general election. This year, voters will select one of two Democrats—Attorney General Kamala Harris and Congresswomen Loretta Sanchez—for U.S. Senate.

I am most curious about how Republicans will vote in this race. Republican State Assemblyman Matthew Harper, for one, is not thrilled about the choices. “The Proposition 14 top-two primary is a total failure with Loretta Sanchez as the ‘alternative’ to Kamala Harris,” he wrote. “I will skip over U.S. Senate on my ballot, then vote for Congressman Dana Rohrabacher for re-election and then down the Republican ticket. This U.S. Senate race offers no substantive difference as a race between two liberals. What’s the difference?”

Outgoing Democratic U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer also is against the top-two primary system, stating earlier this year at Politicon 2016 that the idea is ridiculous and that one either believes in political parties or they do not.

When I attended the only debate between Harris and Sanchez in early October at California State University, Los Angeles, Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs Executive Director Raphael Sonenshein gave his take: “I think this is the first experiment with it at this level. We’ve got to really take a look at how people feel who don’t have a party choice on the table. What it does do is it takes the majority party and it puts possible fissures in the party all the way to November. Remember, usually, parties have all their inside battles in the primary.” He added, “I think what we’re going to have to look at is one big question: what impact does it have on turnout? My sense is it’s possible that the primary reduces turnout among everybody, and the general election may reduce turnout among those who don’t have a choice on the ballot.”

Chapman University Associate Professor of Political Science Fred Smoller shared his thoughts on the process: “It seems to achieve its goal for producing more moderate candidates in the general in high profile, high turnout elections. However, in low turnout primaries you could get an unexpected result. Consider the following scenario: you have a Democratic majority district and there are, say, three or more Democrats running for the office against two Republicans. Republicans generally turn out at a higher rate than Dems. The Democrat candidates would split the vote, and two Republicans would end up facing each other in the general. The winner would invariably be a Republican. All electoral systems have flaws, however.”

As Sonenshein remarked, “Political scientists are going to be all over this.”

Dr. Michael A. (Mike) Moodian is an educator and nonprofit leader based in Orange County, CA. He has served as a faculty member in various capacities for Chapman University since 2007.  Contact Moodian through his website (www.moodian.com) and follow him on Twitter (@mikemoodian).

Opinions expressed in editorials belong to the authors and not Voice of OC.

Voice of OC is interested in hearing different perspectives and voices. If you want to weigh in on this issue or others please contact Voice of OC Involvement Editor Theresa Sears at TSears@voiceofoc.org