Secretary of State Kevin Shelley visits Berkeley
Facing significant challenges as the Oct. 7 recall election looms, his get-out-the-vote effort (and keen sense of humor) dominate a high-profile campus visit.
| 09 September 2003
Last Thursday, California Secretary of State Kevin Shelley stood out on Sproul Plaza getting students registered to vote. Though voter registration at the grassroots level may not usually fall to the state’s chief elections officer, in this altogether anomalous election, anything goes.
Shelley has mounted a large-scale effort to get out the vote. His office’s outreach efforts include public-service announcements (in Spanish and English), regional registration, efforts to reach minority communities, and visits to community and city colleges, the California State University system, and the University of California. Last week’s visit marked the first visit by the secretary himself to a UC campus.
Following his Sproul Plaza efforts, Shelley’s next stop was Professor Kerwin Klein’s undergraduate class in California history, where he spoke for an hour on matters pertaining to the pending recall election, then took part in a Q&A session with students.
“An ever-diminishing number of people are making [our] election decisions,” Shelley told the students. “And while those who are registered to vote more and more reflect the state’s diversity – Latinos, Asians, African Americans – the participation levels of our diverse communities have been decreasing. The small minority that has been making our decisions and electing our officials is not only small but less and less representative of the people in this room.”
Fulfilling a campaign promise
Shelley hails from a long line of advocates. His father, Jack Shelley, was a labor organizer who went on to become mayor of San Francisco, a state senator, and U.S. representative. As secretary of state he cannot discuss how he plans to vote, but he is allowed to fulfill his 2002 campaign promise – to work to increase voter registration and participation.
He talked to the undergraduate class about how the Oct. 7 recall election is history in the making. “The eyes of the country are on us to see if we’re going to be able to pull this election off or if we’re going to wind up like that state with oranges in the southeast corner of the country,” said Shelley.
He’s been queried relentlessly on whether the recall election is the “flip side of Florida.” He’s even been asked how he thinks he compares to Kathryn Harris, his Florida counterpart, who played a prominent role in the 2000 presidential-vote controversy. Shelley told the class that when asked this question on national television, he answered, “I’m better looking.”
It’s fortunate that Shelley has a well-honed sense of humor, because the challenges before him during this recall process are singular. He’s been sued 29 times since he’s been in office over recall-related matters. “I have the distinction,” he told his audience, “of being the most sued constitutional officer in the history of this state.”
Other hurdles include the recall election’s two-and-a-half-month timeframe (most elections are conducted in six months) and working with voting equipment that will be phased out after the election. Of California’s 58 counties, Shelley explained, nine still use punch-card ballots. Of those nine counties, six still use the Votomatic system, the same one widely used in Florida during the 2000 election. These six counties — Santa Clara, San Diego, Sacramento, Los Angeles, Solano, and Mendocino — comprise 52% of the voting population in California.
While Shelley pointed out that California has never had the kind of punch-card trouble that’s made Florida infamous, he admitted he has concerns centered on the number of punch cards required simply to list the 135 candidates for governor. He estimates Los Angeles County will use four or five cards, while Monterey County may use seven or eight. Where this gets problematic, according to Shelley, is in the case of over-votes — which occur when voters mistakenly select more than one option in a category designated for only a single vote. In such cases, their ballot is disqualified.
“As you turn each page and see another name that appeals to you, it’s human nature to change your mind,” explained Shelley. “If you over-vote, the ballot gets thrown out.”
In most of the 18 other states that provide for recall elections, an initial vote is held to determine whether or not there should be a recall. Some months later, depending on the outcome of the first vote, a second election is held to decide on the new incumbent. California is one of the only states to vote on these two questions contemporaneously. “Do I like this?” asked Shelley. “No. But the line we’ve learned to use in my office more than any other is, ‘It is what it is.’”
‘Byzantine, Kafkaesque process’
During the Q&A session that followed Shelley’s comments, one student asked the secretary how he feels about the prospect that our next governor could be someone who was elected with a relatively low percentage of the vote. While Shelley cautioned that he had to be careful about certain questions, since they might relate to cases that are currently in litigation, he did say that “This recall process and the laws that are on the books are the most byzantine, Kafkaesque, screwed-up things I’ve ever seen. It’s hard to oversee laws that are unusual at best.”
Because there’s no way that Shelley can predict the turnout on Oct. 7, he urges people to request absentee ballots (available Sept. 8 – 30). With a sizable number of precincts consolidating, he cautioned there is potential for crowds at polling places. “If you have long lines out the door, people will get pissed off and go home frustrated – and that’s where you’ll have even more of a problem.”
After the California history class, Shelley met with Chancellor Berdahl, then dined at the Faculty Club with a group of 16 that included the Chancellor as well as students, faculty, alumnae, and representatives from the Institute of Governmental Studies. He concluded his campus visit with a talk to the Cal Berkeley Democrats.