How Your Money and Manpower
Decide the Election
To influence the presidential election, Californians need more than just a vote.
In a tidy kitchen tucked under the stairs of a mid-century walk-up just west of downtown Los Angeles, Thalia Placencia is carefully cutting cucumbers and arranging them on a platter for guests yet to arrive. Golden hour’s cozy light streams through her backyard windows, but Thalia, wearing a shirt emblazoned with “The Future is Female,” isn’t giving in to the midsummer evening’s lure to placidity: She’s preparing for battle.
She’s an active Hillary Clinton supporter and tonight she’s hosting a phone bank where a small cellphone-carrying squad will join her to call on the volunteer support of other Democrats.
“I’ve always tried to be involved since I was young,” she says of the political process. As a first-generation American, involvement in choosing this country’s leader is a privilege not lost on her.
However, as a California resident, her vote may not matter as much as she thinks.
Known as the nation’s “presidential campaign ATM,” California is a donor state — of both manpower and money. It’s a place where your vote might not influence the nation as much as your pockets, and where those who have more time to give have a bigger impact on the election.
Presidential candidates know this. While they may talk about voter engagement, they covet two California resources: funds and volunteers.
For all Placencia’s earnest love of her vote, the system grants other Californians more of a voice.
Not All Votes Are Created Equal
Originally the Electoral College was designed for fairness. Created in 1787, the Founding Fathers hoped it would give smaller states a greater voice than their population accounted for. Today, it means that Thalia’s vote in California doesn’t have the same impact as a Floridian's.
Each state receives a number of electors equivalent to its combined number of senators and representatives. California has more electoral votes than any other state because it has the largest share of the population—12 percent. Yet, its Electoral College ratio is only 10.5 percent.
California is a winner-take-all state, which means that the candidate who receives the majority of the popular vote will automatically win all 55 electors. During the last six presidential elections, these votes have gone to the Democratic candidate.
The result is that many party leaders see California as a foregone conclusion, expected to “vote blue.”
Despite this, some people still vote Republican, knowing full well their vote likely won’t affect the presidency but believing that they still make a difference. At a recent West Hollywood rally for Trump, Nestor Moto Jr., an ardent supporter, said, “Yes, we’re in California, but if we are able to vote for someone like him, we still have our voices regardless.”
Their voices just might not be loud enough for candidates to hear. The assumption that California will go blue is clearly reflected by presidential candidate appearances. Consider this year’s highly anticipated California Democratic primary. According to Marc Ambinder, former White House correspondent, the 2016 primary was a chance for Bernie Sanders to win important ground against Hillary Clinton.
Before the primary on June 7, Clinton visited California 33 times, nearly half of her total appearances in 2016. In the two months following the primary, she has only visited California once.
The Future President Needs the Electoral Votes
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of Swing States
Ambinder attributes this discrepancy to the assumption that California is guaranteed to vote Democratic in the general election. But this doesn’t mean presidential candidates have no interest in the state. Ambinder says, “You can take California’s electoral votes for granted, but nobody takes California’s resources for granted.”
How California Exports its Talent
California’s substantial population is too powerful to be ignored. For nearly half a century, the GOP relied heavily on California for financial support and as a feeder to the White House for future leaders like Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon.
The GOP’s predominance in the state has since waned, but California’s manpower remains an important resource for both parties. Organizers are quick to mobilize politically active individuals, though the services provided by volunteers like Placencia don’t necessarily stay in California.
At Placencia’s apartment, Alex Bjerg, the volunteer who organized the phone bank, calls the meeting to order. She begins by welcoming half a dozen callers and familiarizing them with the group’s mission.
Like many California volunteer groups, DTLA4Hillary — the group these callers belong to — targets voters in nearby swing states. “One of the biggest goals of California is to turn Nevada blue,” Bjerg says.
The group is organizing a weeklong bus trip to Las Vegas in October to canvass; they’ll be knocking on doors and doing their best to persuade Nevada voters to choose Clinton at the polls this fall.
It’s not uncommon for California volunteers to be deployed out of state. Eric Bauman, chair of the L.A. County Democratic Party, explains why: “Because we have the luck of being a state that is overwhelmingly blue in a presidential year, we have the great fortune to export some of our best talents to those swing states.”
According to Karla Salazar, strategic director for the L.A. County Federation of Labor, the group sends skilled organizers from California to work in battleground states like Nevada and Colorado. These individuals are on the ground August through October during presidential election years, managing canvassing efforts for hundreds of Californian volunteers each weekend.
At the DTLA4Hillary phone bank, each volunteer has carved out a workstation and begins calling potential canvassers for the upcoming trip to Nevada. There are both pros and cons of traveling out of state.
On the one hand, the lack of engagement within California may prevent some voters from getting involved with local politics.
However, volunteers like Placencia see involvement in other states as a way to create a larger sense of unity nationwide.
“It reminds you that we’re all in this together ... when you’re going out to another state and you realize that we’re all fighting for the same thing, it feels really good.”
California Might Be Getting Shortchanged
Candidates don’t merely stop at wanting Californian volunteers come election time: They want money too.
“California is the nation’s ATM in political contributions. We had a weird moment in the  primaries where candidates actually came to California for our votes, not our money. But now we’re back to where candidates of both parties are raising money from California,” says Thad Kousser, department chair and professor of political science at the University of California, San Diego.
Federal Election Commission data show California accounts for 23 percent of the campaign funds for 2016. In the 2012 election California was the state with the most contributions to the campaigns of President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.
A lot of these funds do not stay within California state lines. According to Kousser, they will end up in swing states like Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania. Californians with money could have disproportionate influence on the outcome of a national election, while at the same time leaving less cash in the state to encourage local voter engagement.
“If all you care about is who is in the White House, you’ve got to give money that will be used in other states. That’s the political price of living in our state,” Kousser says.
Big time donors such as Geoff Palmer and Tom Barrack, Los Angeles real estate developers, have reportedly donated more than $32 million to Trump’s campaign, and Susie Tompkins Buell, co-founder of Esprit and North Face, is said to have given more than $15 million since 1991 to the Clinton campaigns. These donations effectively give donors more impact in who becomes president than plain old voters.
“Personally, it hurts my feelings when people say that California’s vote doesn’t matter,” says Placencia while discussing the idea that some voices could be louder than the average Californian’s.
Kousser takes a less sentimental approach, “If you’ve got a vote and money to give, you’re going to have a louder voice than someone who just has a vote. It’s a challenge to democracy that has existed for as long as there has been democracy.”
Why do Candidates Come Knocking?
Hillary Clinton Rallies vs. Fundraisers
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Different Paths to Change
There are scholars, lawmakers and laymen alike who are actively pursuing paths to change.
Kousser explains that the current system is a function of the Electoral College, which makes undecided voters in swing states pivotal come election time.
One way to boost the voice of the average Californian — someone like Placencia — would be to change the electoral system by switching to a popular vote. It sounds simple; citizens vote directly for a candidate and the candidate with the most votes wins.
A popular vote is not uncommon in other countries, some of which made a similar change quite recently. For example, Finland. The Scandinavian country got rid of its Electoral College and adopted direct popular vote in 1994 because it wanted a more democratic system.
Sami Borg, a well-known Finnish election specialist and director of the Finnish Social Science Data Archive, considers the popular vote change a success. The voter turnout has stayed around 70 percent in the presidential election and small parliamentary parties have managed to get their candidates into the second round of the two-staged election.
The popular vote may have worked elsewhere, but it is relatively unpopular in the United States, even among those who want electoral reform.
Dan Schnur is the director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC and was a leading strategist for four Republican presidential campaigns. He says it is highly unlikely that the Electoral College will be abolished in the United States. Adopting a popular vote would cause campaigning to concentrate only on the big cities with the most votes like Los Angeles and New York City.
”Even if the candidates are spending a disproportionate amount of time in a small number of states, they are spending their time in states whose demographic and geographic makeup are more reflective of the entire country,” Schnur says.
Instead, the electoral system could be reformed by dividing electoral districts into smaller congressional districts. This has already been done in Nebraska and Maine. Within this system a Democratic enclave like Austin could still be heard in a Republican state like Texas.
States would award their electoral votes on the basis of popular votes in the state. The Republicans are in favor of this change because it would benefit them. Had this system been in place in the 2012 national election, Romney would have bested Obama by 11 electoral votes.
Another way to tackle the issue could be campaign finance reform.
The Supreme Court decided in its Citizens United ruling in 2000 that donations are a form of political speech that should not be restricted. That means that the wealthy can continue to donate unlimited amounts of money for presidential campaigns through super PACs.
"It's clearly unfair", Schnur says.
Harvard Law Professor Lawrence Lessig has been campaigning for a model in which every citizen would get a voucher with which to fund campaigns. To benefit, the candidate would have to promise to use only vouchers and small donations for funding.
Seattle will be the first city in the United States to adopt this kind of democracy voucher in its municipal elections.
Then there are those who encourage California to find solace in being at the forefront of other issues. November general elections are not only about electing the president.
Californians will elect U.S. Senate and U.S. House representatives and vote in local elections. They will also express their opinion on ballot propositions such as the use, sale and growth of marijuana and the death penalty, which could have an impact on the whole country.
"If you think of direct democracy as having an impact on the presidency, you're in the wrong state. But if you think of it as having a direct voice on bread-and-butter social issues, California is the place for you," Ambinder says.
He’s supported in this by Kousser, who says, “The presidential race is not the only game in town, there are plenty of California causes that keep enough money in the state for people to run major voter turnout drives.”
The state has been at the forefront of many national issues like same-sex marriage. That’s where Californians could find their importance at the voting booth even though they might not have a pivotal role in the presidential race.
Though, after elaborating on these ballot decisions and their great importance to the nation’s future, Kousser finishes by saying, “generally nothing is as exciting as a presidential campaign.”
It’s this excitement that rises throughout Placencia’s apartment as golden hour turns to night. The voices of both young and old, English and Spanish, bubble progressively louder, filling the small apartment and spilling out through the open windows, releasing onto the streets of Los Angeles the hope that, as Placencia puts it, “we have a great voice in California.”