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California Election 2018: Updates and Analysis

California Election 2018: Updates and Analysis

June 1, 2018

GOP now at number 3

Election 2018

April 9, 2018 11:34 am

In race for California governor, John Chiang is the anti-soundbite candidate

Election Reporter
John Chiang
John Chiang

Gubernatorial candidate John Chiang is known as the wonk in the race. The Democratic state treasurer, former state controller and high school “mathlete”  touts himself as the no-drama candidate—the guy who compensates for his lack of pizzazz by a willingness to dive into the details.

In a conversation with CALmatters, Chiang certainly lived up to his reputation as soundbite-averse. Ask the gubernatorial candidate for his stand on a particular topic and he might provide a program’s financial minutiae, an overview of the pros and cons of a political debate, or—more often than not—a call for more conversation, more study, more data, more deliberation.

On one of the most hotly contested primary issues, Chiang says that he supports moving to a single-payer system in California, just like the Democratic front-runner in the governor’s race, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom. But he has reservations about how it would be funded and implemented, just like the other Democrat polling ahead of Chiang in the race, former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. And while Villaraigosa has dismissed a legislative proposal for single payer as “snake oil,” Chiang said he supports the bill “if amended.” In the meantime, he advocates a public insurance option that Californians could buy into.

Nuanced, yes—but sometimes having a nuanced position can be hard to distinguish from failing to state a position at all.

For example: On rent control, state law currently bans cities from enacting new ordinances restricting how much landlords can charge their tenants. Does Chiang support repealing that ban, and are are there any restrictions he would keep in place? His response was to enumerate the costs and benefits of the policy—how it helps keep current tenants in their homes but discourages development.

“Is there something that we can do intermediately as part of a comprehensive plan to try to make housing more accessible and affordable in this and the next decade?” he said. “I want to have that conversation.”

The state’s latest method of trying to channel more public education dollars to school districts with needier students has been in place for four years, but so far under-performing schools haven’t shown much progress. What’s Chiang’s assessment? “We will continue to ask questions.”

Chiang also says he’s prepared to “ask questions,” hold “difficult conversations,” or otherwise  “look at” changes to state forest management to try to prevent wildfires, whether police personnel files should be kept confidential, if the pensions owed to current public employees should be renegotiated, and whether the state should make it easier for local authorities to compel the mentally ill to get psychiatric treatment.

Of course he is far from alone—most of his fellow contenders for governor also sometimes avoid staking out simple stands on issues that are complex, or controversial, or both.

For Chiang’s supporters, his wait-and-see approach to policy indicates a policymaker who does not jump to conclusions, and who respects the consensus-building process at the heart of California democracy.

What would he do to try to resolve the academic achievement gap between disadvantaged students and their peers in California? Chiang championed “evidence-based decisions making” but called for more research on the types of classroom interventions that have the biggest impact on student achievement.

On criminal justice reform, advocates want to replace cash bail with a system in which defendants would not be detained before trial if they pass a risk assessment. Not so fast. Chiang said that he is open to that change, but cautioned that “further deliberations” are still needed to make sure the replacement works as intended.

What changes would he like to see made to Proposition 13’s caps on property taxes for homeowners and businesses? Chiang offered a detailed description of the how commercial landowners can skirt tax reassessments by carefully structuring the sale of their properties, while also explaining the logistical challenges of finding a legal fix. So does he support simplifying the tax code or raising property taxes on commercial properties?

“I would look at the details before I make a final determination,” he said.

No one could accuse him of being hasty. Yet with the June 5 primary rapidly approaching, Chiang doesn’t have much time to convince voters that cautious deliberation and fiscal discipline are what California needs for the next four years. That approach ought to sound familiar to most Californians after two terms of Gov. Jerry Brown.

But John Chiang is not familiar to most Californians. Despite an early start on fundraising, he has yet to rise above the single digits in most polls, even as he tries to thread an ideological needle between the two Democratic frontrunners in the race, Newsom on the left, and Villaraigosa, whose positions are more centrist.

Whether you call Chiang’s approach sophisticated nuance or not, voters only have less than two months to size him up and cast their ballots.

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In 2014, Silicon Valley venture capitalist and noted political eccentric Tim Draper sponsored a ballot initiative to divide California into six states. The effort failed, considered by many to be politically impractical and legally untenable. So Draper has scaled back his ambitions.

Now he wants to divide California in three—and this week the Secretary of State announced that Draper had gathered the requisite number of signatures to qualify the initiative for the November ballot.

Legal uncertainties aside (and, boy, are there are a lot of them), this invites the obvious question: How did California’s “three states” vote in last week’s primary election?

Well, it was obvious to us anyway.

Fortunately for Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom and John Cox, the two candidates running for governor this November, their top two spots are secure—no matter which California they choose to run in. Two of them gave more votes to the existing California’s top vote-getter, Newsom. But the third would-be state favored Cox.

Under Draper’s proposition, a newly minted “Northern California” would encompass everything from the base of Silicon Valley and Merced to the Oregon Coast. A shrunk-down “California” would hug the coast from San Benito County to Los Angeles. The remainder would become “Southern California,” including San Diego, Orange County, and—for some reason—Fresno and Tulare.

Though Cox has a lead in Southern California, registered Democrats still make up the largest bloc of voters in all three states.

In other statewide races, the three hypothetical states were largely in agreement. In his campaign to remain the state’s Attorney General, Xavier Becerra got the top spot—“North,” “South,” and in-between. Likewise, all three Californias backed Sen. Dianne Feinstein for her fifth full term.

Of course, election results are still not final; there are still over one million ballots to count. Former Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa may have hope yet of securing a win in coastal “California.”

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Ballots are still being counted, but last week’s election is already offering good news for Democrats hoping to take back the House of Representatives in November.

Not only did the party steer clear of its dreaded “shutout scenario,” in which an oversupply of candidates in some of the state’s most competitive races threatened to divide up the Democratic vote, leaving only Republicans to advance to the general election. The preliminary count also suggests that primary voters in certain high profile districts are much more inclined toward Democrats than they were in 2014.

That may or may not foretell a “blue wave” in California, but it does show that Republicans have their work cut out for them.

Why should the array of (mostly) leftward pointing arrows worry Republicans?

Comparing the June 2018 primary to the June primary in 2014, the share of the vote going towards Republican candidates has fallen dramatically in many of the very seats that Democrats are most hoping to flip this fall.

In the district along the border of Orange and San Diego counties represented by GOP Rep. Darrell Issa, who is retiring this year, a majority of primary voters cast their ballots for a Democrat.

A few more of the districts national Democrats have targeted are within spitting distance of a partisan break-even. In GOP Rep. Jeff Denham’s district in the Central Valley, Republicans cobbled together 52 percent of the vote (down from 59 percent in 2014). Likewise, in both Laguna Niguel and Palmdale, Rep. Mimi Walters and Rep. Steve Knight, the only Republicans running in their districts, got 52 percent of the vote as well.

That represents a big shift since 2014, the only other non-presidential election year in which a primary was held under the state’s new top-two system.

In Issa’s district, 16 candidates were vying to replace him in the lead up to June 5. The top two winners, Republican Diane Harkey and Democrat Mike Levin, won around 26 percent and 18 percent of the vote, respectively.

What would a head-to-head Harkey-Levin match-up look like without the 15 other competitors?

One way to guess is to tally up the share of the vote that went to all Republican candidates and compare it to the Democratic share. Assuming that the various supporters of Assemblyman Rocky Chávez, San Diego Supervisor Kristin Gaspar, and the other five Republicans running in that district are likely to fall behind their party’s candidate in the general election, that ought to give us a pretty good idea of what to expect in November.

And the results don’t look good for Harkey.

So far (and again, ballot are still being counted), the Republican candidates in Issa’s seat have garnered 48 percent of the vote. That’s compared to 51 percent for all the Democrats.

That’s also a steep decline from the 2014 primary share when Issa, running as the only Republican, won 61.9 percent of the vote.

Even in districts like Denham’s, Walters’, Knight’s, and Rep. Dana Rohrabacher’s, where Republicans won slim majorities of last week’s vote, those margins may be a little too close for comfort for the GOP. Republicans tend to be more reliable primary voters than Democrats and political independents, so the Republican share of the vote is likely to be lower in most districts come November.

In 2014, for example, Republican vote share between the primary and general elections declined by an average of 1.3 percentage points. That was true of all California congressional races, excluding those where one party was shut out or where a candidate ran unopposed. Looking only at the most competitive races (again, excluding shutouts), the average decline in Republican support was 3.3 percentage points between June and November.

We’ll update this graphic as more ballots are counted.

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Election 2018

June 8, 2018 7:12 pm

With voter turnout up statewide, five California counties find new mail-in ballot system slows count

Photo by Robbie Short for CALmatters

After years of research, months of planning and weeks of voting, the training wheels for the Voters Choice Act flew off, and county registrars and state experts are still trying to figure out what happened.

All over the state, election day is slowly morphing into election week, and counting ballots is taking longer. By tonight, some 2.5 million ballots across California had not yet been tabulated—a consequence of more voters opting to vote by mail.

But for the five California counties that implemented the state Voters Choice Act, it’s been vote-by-mail on steroids—and delayed final results.

In an effort to improve voter turnout, those counties got rid of traditional neighborhood local polling places. Instead they mailed ballots to every registered voter, who then had 11 days to cast ballots or do anything voter-related at mega-voting centers. They could place ballots in mailboxes or in an array of dropboxes scattered throughout the county.

Nonetheless many voters waited until election day on Tuesday to turn in or mail in their ballots—leaving counties overrun with ballots waiting to be processed. By state law, ballots postmarked on or before election day will be tabulated if received up to three days after the election.

The numbers suggest that voter turnout statewide will reach 36 percent—a big improvement over the record-low turnout of 25 percent statewide in the last primary midterms, in 2014.

Tuesday’s turnout was similarly higher in the five counties using the new vote-center model: Sacramento, San Mateo, Nevada, Napa and Madera. Sacramento County, the largest, had a 30 percent turnout in 2014 and appears headed for a 46 percent turnout in Tuesday’s primary.

“We had hamper after hamper of these pink bags stuffed to the brim (with ballot envelopes),” said Alice Jarboe, interim registrar of Sacramento County, adding that her staff is working 10-hour days to try to keep up.  “It is a lot of work, and when we get these huge amounts back, we just throw more temps at it.”

Californians can expect later final election results.

“I was surprised at the number of people who waited to the last minute,” said Rebecca Martinez, registrar of voters for Madera County. “I thought more people would make use of the (extra days), but I found that you still have a lot of people who still like to go someplace to vote on Tuesday.”

Inevitably, there was some confusion as voters adjusted to a new system. Some voters said they had trouble figuring out where to go to vote and when they were open. By Tuesday afternoon, Nicole Jones, 24, said she was was on her third center in Sacramento after trying to vote in person at two others accepting drop-off ballots only.

Others welcomed the voting centers and dropboxes. “This is way easier,” Stephanie Bucknam, 33, who appreciated that she didn’t have to wait in line and could just drop off her ballot. Her old precinct had been converted to a voting center, so she didn’t have to make much of an adjustment.

“Flexibility can’t hurt when you’re trying to get more people to vote,” she said. 

For voters, voting by mail is straightforward: fill out your ballot, sign it and return it.

For elections employees, it’s like an assembly line. Once they receive ballots, they scan them into the system. Someone has to verify that the signature on the ballot envelope matches the signature of the registered voter. Once the signature is verified, elections officials can separate the ballots by precinct and prepare to run them through a machine that counts the votes. There’s not one machine that does it all. With mail-in or vote-by-mail ballots, humans play a large role making sure ballots are verified, sorted and make it into the counting machine.They are also there to troubleshoot if the machine goes awry.

In Sacramento County, it takes about 80 employees to operate at capacity, and it will still take weeks to process the outstanding ballots.

Equipment can be a barrier for counties. In the state budget now being finalized, the secretary of state’s office is requesting $134 million to  cover half the cost to update all counties’ voting equipment, assuming most counties switch to the vote center model.

“There’s probably a different solutions, depending on the county,” said James Schwab, planning guru for the secretary of state’s office. “Most counties need new voting equipment, and that will speed up the counting process.”

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