Last-Minute Tips for California Voters
by Kim Alexander, President of the California Voter Foundation

"I was born a citizen of a free state and a member of its sovereign body, and however weak may be the influence of my voice in public affairs, my right to vote on them suffices to impose on me the duty of studying them."

--- Jean Jaques Rousseau, The Social Contract, 1762

There‚s been a lot of talk this election season about how long and complicated our primary ballots are, and about how voters are confused by the new Open Primary system. This tip sheet provides some suggestions to help voters prepare to make informed choices on June 2:

Review your official state and county voter guides

Make sure you understand how California‚s new Open Primary works

Use the Internet to find last-minute information

Scrutinize everything!

Read your local newspaper

Talk to your friends

Review your official voting information. You should have received two official booklets in the mail - one from the Secretary of State, the other from your local county election office. The state Ballot Pamphlet is prepared by the Secretary of State, and is now also called the „California Voter Information Guideš. This 76-page pamphlet was mailed to California households in March, and contains information on the statewide races and ballot measures. Your Official Sample Ballot is published by your county election office. This booklet includes a sample of the actual ballot you will receive when you go to your polling place on June 2, and features information on the local races and measures that appear on your ballot. It also tells you where your polling place is located. It‚s a good idea to mark this booklet up and take it with you when you go to the polls so you can cast your votes more quickly.

If you didn‚t receive these materials in the mail, it‚s possible you are not registered to vote at your current address. Contact your county elections office to find out if you are eligible to vote in this election.

Make sure you understand how California‚s new Open Primary election process works. Your ballot is long, right? That‚s because of California‚s new open primary system. Let‚s review: in 1996 California voters passed Proposition 198, which created an open, or „blanketš primary system for California elections. (Though Prop. 198 was called the „Open Primaryš initiative, the system it implemented is technically a „blanket primaryš). After the initiative was passed, the Democratic and Republican parties fought like mad in the courts to get it invalidated. Ultimately, they failed, and now we are conducting our first election under the new Open Primary law.

Here‚s how it used to work: for the Primary election, you would receive a sample ballot that listed only the candidates of the party to which you were registered. California voters registered as independents, or „decline to stateš would receive ballots that listed no candidates at all. If you wanted to vote in a different party‚s primary, you needed to re-register with that party.

Under the new „blanketš primary system, voters now receive ballots that list ALL of the candidates of ALL of the parties who are running for that office. The candidate of each party who receives the most votes in the Primary will advance to the General election ballot -- just as it‚s always been. But now, California voters can vote for a candidate from any party in any race. For example, you can vote for a Republican candidate for Congress, and a Democratic candidate for State Assembly. But, you can only vote for one candidate per race. (A note to longtime California voters who remember California‚s cross-filing primary system of the past -- this is NOT crossfiling! Even if one candidate gets more than fifty percent of all the votes cast in the Primary, the top-vote getter of each party will still advance to the November 1998 ballot.)

The Open Primary is likely to have its greatest effect in the legislative and congressional races. Many of those districts lean heavily in favor of one party or another - not because they were gerrymandered, but because that‚s how the regions of California have developed. Orange County is heavily Republican, for example, while San Francisco is heavily Democratic. As a consequence, in many districts in California the only place for real competition is in the Primary election. Under the new Open Primary law, Democrats living in Orange County, for example, can now participate in the Republican Primary elections, and be involved in the process of narrowing down the choice for the November election. This, in fact, was the true aim of the Open Primary law, whose authors wanted to change the electoral process in order to give more voters a say in the primary elections, which they hoped would produce more moderate candidates. Whether that actually happens remains to be seen.

But the bottom line is, your vote counts now more than it ever did before. So spend it wisely. For example, if you are registered with a minor party, your party‚s candidates probably have no competition in the primary election. You know your party‚s candidates are going to be on the ballot in November no matter what. So why spend your vote there? You can use your vote in one of the contested primaries in that race instead. Of course, you shouldn‚t cast your votes blindly -- you need to do your homework first. And there‚s no better place to look for information than the Internet.

Use the Internet. After you‚ve taken a look at your sample ballot and know what decisions you have to make, get on the Internet and start doing your homework. If you don‚t have Internet access at your home or workplace, ask a friend to use their computer or try your local library -- over 180 public libraries in California provide free Internet access to the public.

You can start your tour at the California Voter Foundation‚s 1998 California Primary Online Voter Guide. We put a lot of love and hard work into our site, so we sure hope you use it! Follow the link to „Statewide Racesš, where you‚ll find a list of the 90 candidates running for statewide office, grouped by party affiliation, which makes it easier to tell who‚s running against each other. For each statewide candidate, you‚ll find a photo, their top three priorities if elected, and a link to their web site. Eighty percent of the statewide candidates have web sites, so there‚s plenty of information to find.

You can also read the California Journal‚s analysis of the race, which will give you a candid, independent view of all the statewide, congressional, and legislative races and ballot measures. Spend some time cruising around our voter guide web site -- you‚ll find information on all the statewide, legislative and congressional races, state ballot measures, campaign finance data, links to other helpful web sites, and much more.

Scrutinize everything you see and hear. There‚s always lots of mud and dirt that gets tossed around during election time. And you‚re also likely to receive a ton of mail from all kinds of people -- candidates, ballot measure campaigns, and slate mailer organizations, for example. Read the literature carefully, and always look for the fine print. It‚s important to know who‚s behind the messages that you see, since they often can be deceptive. Slate mailers, for example, are those mailings that list a whole bunch of candidates. They may say „official Absentee Voter Guideš or appear to be published by a political party or group, but these mailings are usually designed to deceive you. Most the candidates who appear in these mailers have paid to be included in them. Candidates participate in these mailers because it‚s an affordable way to get their name out, but sometimes they sign up because the slate mailer organizations threaten to sell the space to their opponent if they don‚t.

Unfortunately, not even cyberspace is a safe place anymore for trustworthy information. Now there are electronic slates, or „e-slatesš that are starting to hit California voters‚ electronic mailboxes. Apply the same kind of scrutiny to these messages as you would any other kind of political advertisement. Is there an email address that you can respond to? Is a phone number provided, or a name of the person sending the mail? Does it include the name and ID number of the political organization sponsoring the message? If you can‚t identify the source of a message, consider it junk mail and put where it belongs -- in the trash.

Many voters have come to rely on the endorsements and recommendations of organizations and people they know and trust for help in deciding how to vote. You‚ll find most candidates list their endorsements on their web site. You‚ll also find newspaper endorsements listed in the editorial pages of most newspapers in the days leading up to the election. Many political organizations also publicize their endorsements in newsletters to their members.

Read your local newspaper. Most local newspapers in California provide extensive coverage of election issues. Many even publish a special voter guide for their subscribers, and some have put together excellent election packages on their web sites providing an archive of election news stories and analysis. You‚ll find links to these online election packages from CVF‚s California Online Voter Guide.

Discuss your ballot with others. Talk to your friends, family and coworkers and seek out the opinions of people you know and trust. Invite some friends over to your house for an evening of web surfing and ballot review. It doesn‚t have to be a chore - you can make a party of it!

Thanks to the Internet, making informed decisions can now be a reality for California voters instead of just wishful thinking. And thanks to California‚s new Open Primary law, our votes count more than they ever did before. So exercise your rights wisely, and be sure to stop by your polling place between 7 a.m. and 8 p.m. on Tuesday, June 2.

First published May 29, 1998

Last updated May 29, 1998

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