Jeff Jardine

Jardine: Bill would make voting easier, but won’t cure apathy

When California Secretary of State Alex Padilla rolled through Modesto last week, he came on a mission.

Certainly, it involved his keynote Cesar Chavez Day speech at the Latino Community Roundtable event. He also made stops at Modesto High School and The Bee, and that is where the mission came into play.

As secretary of state, Padilla is in charge of elections in California. He encounters the same thing statewide that most counties see locally: low voter turnouts for everything other than presidential elections. Only about 17.3 percent of California’s registered Latino voters voted in the 2014 elections. Only 18.4 percent of Asian-Pacific Islanders voted that year, and the percentage of 18- to 25-year-olds of all races often falls into a single digit even though voting arguably has never been easier.

Request a by-mail ballot, permanently or only for the next election. Pick your candidate, choose sides on the statewide propositions or local measures, check the corresponding box and toss it back into the mail before the election.

What Padilla cannot do is to make voting mandatory. Not voting is a right the vast majority of Californians exercise most every Election Day. Nor can he force people to care about what goes on in government at any level and how it might ultimately affect them. He can only urge them to become informed and involved, as he did with the students at Modesto High.

He can, however, back Senate Bill 450, which is why he visited with The Bee’s editorial board. SB 450 would mandate that every voter get a ballot 28 days before the election and offer in-person early voting 10 days prior to Election Day. It also basically would eliminate the need for provisional ballots, which a voter receives if he or she goes to the wrong precinct. Those ballots are counted but require costly and time-consuming voter eligibility verification.

By using laptop or notebook computers at polling sites, a registered voter could go to the most convenient voting station, be verified on the spot and get a regular ballot while being checked off the list. No longer would voters have to leave early to vote before work or rush home to get to the polls before they close.

Because the majority of college students fall within the 18-to-25 age range, such voting stations could conveniently be situated on campuses.

The irony? Colleges and universities once were bastions of political discourse and protests but have become places where free speech is tacitly and, in some cases, openly discouraged. Now, they could be used as polling places. The state could even reserve the so-called free-speech zones – boxes painted on sidewalks and restricting where free speech can occur – and use them as polling places. Imagine that.

If you find it disturbing that fewer people exercise their right to vote or to voice their opinions in public, here’s something more disturbing: Many younger folks no longer believe those rights are vital to the country’s existence.

My theory: The seeds of apathy began sprouting after the military draft ended in the 1970s. Over time, many Americans took their eyes off Washington because their children no longer were going to be forced to go to war or into the military. The detachment trickled down to the lower levels of government as well. And since the passage of the Patriot Act after 9/11, a generation of children has grown up believing the government’s ability to protect the populace by whatever means outweighs the rights of an individual’s privacy and protection from government intrusion.

For most of the past decade, I’ve been among those who judge the American Heritage Essay Contest. High school students compete for scholarship money by addressing in most years specific questions that relate to changing times and how the U.S. Constitution should apply. Every year, it seems, more and more of the teens argue on the side of government control, and of restricting First Amendment rights of freedom of speech, the press and peaceful assembly.

We’ve seen numerous incidents on college campuses across the country – including Modesto Junior College – in which administrations have trampled free-speech rights. MJC’s 2014 case drew the attention of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which provided legal counsel for plaintiff Robert Van Tuinen, whose great crime was trying to hand out copies of the U.S. Constitution on Constitution Day without first reserving the free-speech box. It cost the district $50,000 to make the problem go away.

So while SB 450 is a bill that, if passed, would peel off another layer or two or three in the voting process, it would aid only the people who already vote but find the process cumbersome or inconvenient.

The bill can’t command others to become more motivated, informed and involved, or to pay more attention to the politicians put into office by proxies of disinterest.