By Bijan White
The UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs and the California Association of Clerks and Elected Officials brought together a group of distinguished figures from the public and private sectors, including California Secretary of State Alex Padilla, on January 14 to discuss the mechanisms and modernization of the voting process.
With the upcoming 2016 elections in sight, the implications of the vote and the voting process have once more come under question. Experts remind us of the near-sacred importance of the vote as an act of citizenship, as well as the logistical enterprise it represents. The voting process demands the highest level of anonymity, which becomes complicated when faced with the massive scale of the ballot registration and counting process.
Prior to the panel, Mark Peterson, chair of the Luskin Department of Public Policy, commented on the necessity of such discussions. “If there is one institution in American politics which demands clarity and transparency, it’s voting,” Peterson said, emphasizing how important this is in California, which represents such a vast voter base. “We’ve seen the consequences of logistical errors in the voting system in 2000. Democrats were voting for Buchanan in Florida because they could not interpret the layout of the ballot sheets.”
The panel began with opening remarks from Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris, associate dean of the Luskin School of Public Affairs. While stressing the importance of the vote, Loukaitou-Sideris mourned its dwindling importance in the collective mind of the youth. “Nowadays, teens are more focused on when they can drive than when they can vote,” she said. However, its importance should not be overlooked, she added. “Many of the great issues our society faces are tackled through the process of voting within our democracy.”
Moderator Dave Bryant, political reporter for KCBS2 and KCAL9, broached the subject of the use of technology in the voter process. “We are looking to the future to modernize the voting process,” Bryant said. “In Los Angeles, for example, voter turnout is in the single digits.”
The need for reform within the voting process to boost voter turnout is rising, but many of the panelists urged caution. “While striving for improvement, the risk of taking one wrong step is great,” said Jeffrey Lewis, chair of the Department of Political Science at UCLA. “We should not be so harsh to judge slow progress.”
Data analyst expert Christopher Hetch stressed the logistical nightmare the voting process represents. “Relying on paper for communication is antiquated,” Hecht said. “We can create new ways to educate people, reach voters and increase turnout.” Reaching voters, providing and making the information needed for the voting process accessible, and providing convenient methods of casting ballots are all factors surrounding voter engagement, he said.
The concept of civic engagement was discussed by Conan Nolan, political reporter for KNBC-TV and host of NBC4’s News Conference, who criticized the lack of civic education in newer generations. “We have lost a sense of training citizens in public education.” Nolan said. “Most voters come from families who voted — they learned the importance of this process.”
Engaging the next generation of citizens, according to Nolan, is a responsibility that the state should embrace because “citizenship is learned.” However, Padilla noted the diverse demographics of the nation. “We can’t assume all families can teach their children about the importance of civic engagement,” Padilla said.
The concept of online voting was discussed and proved to be controversial. “Online voting is not something we are ready for because of security and privacy issues,” Padilla said. The ballot must have the highest degree of anonymity, he added. “The internet provides data, not secrecy.”
But, Hetch countered that “we need to build the trust needed for people to feel comfortable voting online,” arguing that there are currently ways to ensure the security needed for online voting. Others, such as Nolan, rejected the concept based on principle. “The spirit of our most sacred right is manifested in going to the voting center with your fellow citizens.” The concept of online voting degrades that ideal, Nolan said.
Despite the obstacles and disagreements presented by the panelists, many palpable solutions were presented, some of which are already underway. Padilla noted the establishment of Senate Bill 450, which will allow California counties to implement a new elections model that includes mailing every voter a ballot, expanding early voting and enabling voters to cast a ballot at any vote center within their county.
In conclusion, Lewis captured the essence of the debate: “We should strive to make it so that no one who desires to vote ends up unable to do so.”