We have witnessed the dawn of a new era for California elections – one that caused “shocks for California Republicans … watching Democrats flip a whopping seven House districts” in 2018. The most astounding win occurred in California’s Congressional District 21 (CA-21) where “weeks after Election Day, absentee and provisional ballots boosted Democrat TJ Cox ahead of Republican David Valadao.”
California’s New Electoral Rules
Participation in the electoral process can be hindered by various problems such as out of date voter registrations. While in most states late or problematic ballots are discarded, new electoral rules in California aim at ensuring that “more people get a chance to vote and that all the ballots cast are counted.” Thus, on Nov 6, 2018 California voters were allowed to cast provisional ballots when they lost their absentee ballots or went to the wrong poling place. Counties were required to notify voters about problematic ballots, such as ballots without signatures or with signatures that did not match those on record, so the validity of their ballots could be confirmed. “Our signatures may change over time, but that shouldn’t jeopardize our right to have our votes counted,” California Secretary of State Alex Padilla said when the Legislature passed this latest electoral rule.
Central Valley’s District 21
CA-21 consists of Kings County as well as parts of Fresno, Kern, and Tulare Counties, and stretches from Mendota in the North to outer parts of Bakersfield in the South. (Click for Swing Left District Primer.)
With 17% more registered Democrats than Republicans, CA-21 was predictably carried by Obama in 2012 and Clinton in 2016, yet Republican David Valadao was elected in 2012, then reelected in 2014 and 2016 with comfortable margins. Although representing a district where over 30% of population lives in poverty, during the past two years Valadao has consistently supported policies that have threatened the well-being of his constituents, such as cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program which assists 45,000 households and Medicaid which covers over 30% of adults and 64% of children in this district.
With about 64% of registered voters not casting ballots in the previous midterm elections, outreach efforts in CA-21 focused on informing residents of Valadao’s legislative record and persuading them to cast a ballot on Nov 6, 2018.
Counting Ballots in CA 21
The new electoral rules played a decisive role in TJ Cox’s win. With 67,090 votes counted on Nov 6, the Republican incumbent, David Valadao, was leading TJ Cox by about 5,000 votes. Subsequently, 46,526 late-arriving and provisional ballots were counted, including those cast by voters who were allowed to register on Election Day. Their ballots were processed once the county elections office had completed the voter registration verification process. (Other states that allow same-day voter registration: Colorado, Connecticut, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Minnesota, Montana, New Hampshire, Utah, Vermont, Washington, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.)
After 113,616 votes were counted, Cox won by 862 votes. This startling turnaround would not have been possible without California’s decision to process every cast ballot, which turned out to be critical in a district with a relatively small pool of registered voters and historically low turnout. CA-21 has 230,632 registered voters, while its neighboring districts 4, 10, and 22 have 458,250, 350,508, and 362,192 registered voters respectively. In 2018, voter turnout in CA-21 was 49.2%, while CA-4, 10, and 22 had turnouts of 74.3%, 63.3%, and 61.4%, respectively.
California’s electoral rules are remarkable when compared with states like Florida where results were certified about a week before Cox took the lead in CA-21 on Nov 26. To Paul Ryan’s suggestion that California’s voting system is “bizarre”, Padilla responded that “every eligible citizen should be able to easily register to vote … and cast their ballot and have their vote counted.”
Voter Engagement Revisited
The novelty of the electoral rules caught volunteers in CA-21 unprepared. While few were available to help contact voters with problematic ballots, volunteers who joined improvised phone bank and canvassing efforts were rewarded by conversations with highly motivated citizens thrilled that their votes are counted.
In 2020, we should expect a Count Every Vote phase to complement Get Out the Vote as an integral part of California’s electoral cycle endgame. With California’s Motor Voter program continuously increasing the number of new voters, outreach efforts will have to ensure that they are well informed of both the details and the importance of participating in the electoral process.
Counting Votes in CA 21
California’s New Electoral Rules