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November 28, 2005

Secretary of State McPherson urges young people to vote

By Jennifer McNulty

Displaying characteristic good humor, Secretary of State Bruce McPherson laid it on the line for a student-dominated crowd that attended his talk November 17 about the importance of voting in the democratic process.

Bruce McPherson and Michael HutchisonInterim Social Sciences Dean Michael Hutchison, right, moderated the lecture featuring Secretary of State Bruce McPherson.
Photo: Jennifer McNulty

"Only one of four of you cared enough to participate in the most basic right and duty we have in our democracy," McPherson said, referring to the low participation of potential voters aged 18 to 24. "What's up with that? That's a pathetic statistic."

McPherson addressed about 300 people who turned out for the Social Sciences Division's Distinguished Guest Lecture, discussing the recent special election, the initiative process, and doing his best to inspire young people to vote.

A former legislator from Santa Cruz, McPherson served in the state Assembly and the state Senate. He became the 30th secretary of state of California on March 30, 2005. He was a reporter and editor at the Santa Cruz Sentinel for 26 years before entering politics.

"I'm a Republican from Santa Cruz--just get over it," McPherson ribbed the audience. "I was known as the oxymoron of the Legislature."

Voting is the basis of democracy, said McPherson, who reminded the audience that voting rights were originally restricted to white men who owned property. Access to the ballot box expanded with the 15th Amendment in 1870, which prohibited restrictions based on race, and the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote in 1920. The Voting Rights Act in 1965 offered assistance to non-English-speaking voters, 18-year-olds won the right to vote in 1971, and those with special needs were guaranteed equal opportunities to vote in 1990.

"The right to vote hasn't come easily, and it certainly wasn't equal from the get-go," he said. "We should acknowledge that by voting on every Election Day."

McPherson, who as secretary of state administers state elections, got a "little more close and personal" with the crowd, asking, "What is it about you 18- to 24-year-olds that you don't like voting?" Of California's 22 million eligible voters, about 16 million are registered. Last November, 76 percent of registered voters in the state cast a ballot--the highest turnout in a presidential election in 24 years. But younger voters are failing to participate, he said, adding that his office has resurrected the practice of sending birthday cards to Californians on their 18th birthday, encouraging them to register to vote.

Voting is an extension of community involvement, and greater participation could yield bigger margins and create a greater mandate for successful candidates and propositions, he said, recounting several recent races that were decided by a single vote.

"Don't tell me every vote doesn't count," said McPherson, who spoke for about 25 minutes before fielding questions for more than 45 minutes. "If people don't vote, democracy doesn't work. It's as simple as that."

Discussing the results of the November 8 special election, in which voters rejected all eight propositions, McPherson said voters were sending a clear message to the Legislature: "Get your act together, tackle the tough issues facing California," he said.

The initiative process has been "co-opted by special interests" and should be an option of "last resort," said McPherson. "Voters aren't suffering from election fatigue, they're suffering from initiative fatigue," he said, suggesting that the practice of paying signature-gatherers who circulate petitions to get items on the ballot and the threshold for qualifying initiatives for the ballot should be revisited.

Responding to questions about California's new electronic voting machines, McPherson offered assurances that he has imposed the strictest standards in the nation and that the system will have a "paper trail" that will prevent voting for more than the allowed number of candidates and will allow voters to see how they voted before leaving their polling place.

"Once you lose faith in the accuracy of the electoral system, the system isn't any good--people don't have confidence in it," said McPherson.

In other remarks, McPherson said he thinks term limits have created an "ongoing state of flux" in Sacramento and have concentrated power in the executive branch, but he credited them with bringing more women and people of color into the Legislature. He thinks redistricting is "desperately needed in this state," and he said he doesn't see public support for public financing of campaigns, particularly given the state's ongoing budget crunch.

Interim Social Sciences Dean Michael Hutchison introduced McPherson and presented him with a UCSC jacket and golf head covers as a parting gift.


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