Monday, July 14, 2014

California voters had reasons to skip primary

The lowest percentage of voters in California history turned out for the June 2014 California Primary election, according to the Certified Statement of the Vote released last Friday by California Secretary of State Debra Bowen. Approximately 4.5 million Californians - one out of every four registered voters in the state and 18 percent of eligible voters - cast ballots in the June 3rd election. 

Voters had some good reasons to skip the primary, as explained in this op-ed I wrote which was published the Saturday after the election in the Sacramento Bee. Excerpts are featured below.

Californians have never shown much interest in participating in primaries. Only once in the last 100 years (1938) have more than half of eligible Californians participated in a primary election.

Turnout among registered voters has also dropped dramatically, peaking in 1976 at 73 percent and sliding down ever since. There have been a few high points since then, when we moved our presidential primary to an earlier date to give Californians more say. In March 2000, 54 percent of registered voters participated, and in February 2008, 58 percent participated. But overall, primary turnout, especially in nonpresidential elections, has hovered around 30 or 40 percent.
One explanation is the steep decline in party affiliation and dramatic rise in the number of independent voters. In 1990, 89 percent of the state’s registered voters were affiliated with either the Democratic or the Republican parties while 9 percent were registered as independents and 2 percent with minor parties.
Today, 72 percent of California’s voters affiliate with the two major parties, while 21 percent are independents and 7 percent are with minor parties. While under the top-two primary election system, independents now have a say in whittling down the choices for November, it doesn’t change the fact that until very recently, primaries were intended for parties to select their nominees for the general election. With a growing percentage of California voters choosing to affiliate with neither of the major parties, it should come as no surprise that participation in primaries is dropping.
Today, 72 percent of California’s voters affiliate with the two major parties, while 21 percent are independents and 7 percent are with minor parties. While under the top-two primary election system, independents now have a say in whittling down the choices for November, it doesn’t change the fact that until very recently, primaries were intended for parties to select their nominees for the general election. With a growing percentage of California voters choosing to affiliate with neither of the major parties, it should come as no surprise that participation in primaries is dropping.
Another reason why many people are sitting out elections is that no one is asking for their vote. Political campaigns are extremely sophisticated in micro-targeting their communications only to those voters most likely to vote, and ignoring everyone else.
California’s decline in homeownership rates and relatively low rates of homeownership compared to other states may also be a factor. Homeowners vote in higher rates than renters for several reasons. First, as property-tax payers, they have a greater stake in government decisions. Second, they are likely to be wealthier than the general public and feel a greater need to protect their interests. And, unlike renters, they stay put, and so are more likely to become familiar with their political districts and elected officials.
According to the U.S. census, California’s homeownership rate dropped from 60 percent in 2005 to 56 percent in 2010, which is nearly the same percentage of eligible Californians who voted in the 2012 general election. Other states’ turnout rates similarly match up. Minnesota’s 76 percent turnout rate in 2012 was the highest in the nation, and that state has a 73 percent homeownership rate. New York’s turnout was 54 percent, with homeownership at 55 percent.
Another contributing factor is a lack of funding. Since 2011, Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature have withheld money owed to counties to pay for election programs mandated by the state, such as vote by mail. As a result, counties are forced to do more with less, even as the number of eligible and registered voters in California constantly expands. A reduction in state funding can result in reduced election services, such as early voting and voter outreach programs.
And lastly, we have the media’s constant dwelling on the likely low turnout rate leading up to election day. This narrative may well have helped suppress turnout. Occasional voters are highly influenced to vote depending on what others around them are doing, particularly their friends and family. Repeated messages about low voter turnout do little to encourage participation and may in fact contribute to the problem.

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Monday, June 2, 2014

Look up your polling place online & other election day tips

On this election eve the California Voter Foundation has a few election tips to share. 

1. Polls are open 7 a.m. - 8 p.m. tomorrow. Please urge your coworkers, friends and family to participate. 
2. Help spread the word that you don't have to vote on everything on the ballot in order for your votes to count. The important thing is to be a voter.

3. While many pundits have been talking about low voter turnout a better message to share is to let people know what a privilege it is to be able to vote and choose who represents us. 

4. Voters looking for their polling place location have a new tool at their fingertips. California Secretary of State Debra Bowen and her staff recently debuted a new statewide polling place lookup tool, produced in collaboration with Google and Pew's Voting Information Project. It also lists statewide candidates and county election office information. This is the first statewide lookup tool made available to California voters. Check it out at

5. Voters who have vote-by-mail ballots and have not returned them should fill them out and take them to any polling place in your home county on Election Day. Postmarks don't count

6. Late arrival, missing signatures and signatures not matching are the three top reasons why some vote-by-mail ballots don't get counted. Make sure yours does by returning it in person on Election Day, signing the envelope, and signing your name the same way you registered to vote. CVF has more tips to help you make it count

7. There are no dumb questions. Voting can be confusing, and election officials are there to help. Use CVF's Directory of County Election Offices to contact your election office with any last-minute questions.

8. If you need to check your registration status, or the status of your vote-by-mail ballot, or want to view an online version of your county sample ballot you can access these resources in most counties via CVF's Directory of County Election Offices.

9. For information about candidates on the ballot and essential election information, visit CVF's California Online Voter Guide.To follow the money and see who's backing a candidate, visit Maplight's Voters Edge.

10. Wear your "I Voted" sticker tomorrow with pride!

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Ten Questions for Secretary of State Candidates

Election season is upon us and the open seat contest for California Secretary of State has drawn a number of candidates, including several who will be debating each other this afternoon at a Sacramento Press Club event

Whenever there is an election for Secretary of State, I'm frequently asked for input on questions to be asked of the candidates. This year I've decided to post a list of suggested questions on my blog - here's hoping a few get asked today!

Ten Questions For Secretary of State Candidates

1. Many voters and would-be voters are uncomfortable with their personal information being made available to secondary users such as political parties and campaigns. As Secretary of State what if anything will you do to address the public’s voter data privacy concerns?

2. Federal law requires state government agencies to offer the public the opportunity to register to vote. What will you do as Secretary of State to ensure this happens?

3. California currently offers no statewide online lookup tools to help voters verify their registration status, locate their polling place or check on the status of their vote-by-mail ballot. What will you do as Secretary of State to provide voters with access to these kinds of tools?

4. There is widespread agreement that the Cal-Access online disclosure system is in need of an overhaul. What specific changes do you want to see made to this system and how will you bring those changes about if elected Secretary of State?

5. Ten years ago California enacted a law to require electronic ballots to be backed up with a voter-verified paper audit trail. Do you support this law?

6. Funding for California counties has been withheld in the state budget since 2011, when Governor Jerry Brown proposed and legislature agreed to suspend the state mandated election programs and no longer provide funding to counties to support those programs. This includes the permanent vote-by-mail program which 43 percent of California’s registered voters are currently enrolled in. As Secretary of State what will you do to ensure counties carry out state election laws in a uniform way?

7. Many vote-by-mail ballots go uncounted in California due to late arrival or voter error. What would you do as Secretary of State to reduce the state’s unsuccessful vote-by-mail ballot rate (among the highest in the nation according to Pew’s Election Performance Index) and get more VBM ballots to be cast successfully and counted?

8. What is your opinion about voting over the Internet?

9. What guarantee can you give to California voters that their ballot was counted correctly? What will you do as Secretary of State to ensure the integrity and accuracy of California’s vote count?

10. Funding for the Secretary of State is provided for in the state budget. As Secretary of State what will you do to ensure that the Legislature and the Governor provide your agency with adequate funding to ensure you can carry out your duties as well as any additional goals and programs you wish to pursue?

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

CVF-NEWS Roundup: Disclosure bills, Covered CA, election funding & Secretary of State race

The March 28th edition of CVF-NEWS was jam-packed with lots of important news updates, covering the following topics:
  • Disclosure bills to give voters information about top proposition donors advance in the Legislature;
  • Covered CA agrees to mail voter registration forms to nearly 4 million applicants;
  • California's legislative budget committees hit the "pause" button on continued suspension of funding for state-mandated local election programs; and
  • Secretary of State race gets underway with candidate forums.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

CVF-NEWS: Election reform reports, and a letter from Pete Seeger

The February 3rd edition of CVF-NEWS highlights two important reports that were recently released - one produced by the Presidential Commission on Election Administration, the second by the Public Policy Institute of California. Also featured in this newsletter is a roundup of the news clips regarding my correspondence with the late and great Pete Seeger.

Friday, January 31, 2014

More news and thoughts about the Pete Seeger letter

This has been an incredible week. The story of the letter I received from the late Pete Seeger has traveled far and wide. I have been hearing from old friends and making new ones from all across the country. I love how the story is traveling between family members, musicians, music teachers and music lovers from all walks of life.

During this week I met and became friends with a photographer online who took a picture of Pete Seeger writing letters. I received an article from a reporter sharing Pete Yarrow's account of his last day with Pete Seeger, which featured a family/community singalong. It is also now featured in my local paper, the Sacramento Bee.

I've had offers from strangers and friends to help publish the pamphlet of jam tips that I wrote to Pete about and will be working on that in the coming weeks, as well as tips for how to organize music jams. Today, my story was shared on NPR's All Things Considered so it will now reach an even wider audience. The NPR story ends with Pete Seeger singing "So Long, It's Been Good to Know You", which left me in tears.

People are celebrating Pete Seeger as a songwriter, musician and activist, and all of that is well-deserved. But to me his greatest gift was as a songleader, in getting people to sing along and experience the joy of singing and participating and making music together. It is one of the most fundamental joys a human being can experience. Today there are song circles and music jams that happen all over the world, but I believe there are even more people who, because of fear and self-doubt, hold back the music that’s inside them. I want to help let it out. That was what I wrote to Pete about and that is what he asked me to do in his letter. I will carry out his wishes – doing so will be one of the most joyous tasks I’ve ever undertaken.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Letter from Pete Seeger, received Jan. 28, 2014

Like many Americans, I spent much of yesterday thinking about Pete Seeger on the news of his passing. I listened to his songs, watched YouTube performances, and had an NPR "driveway moment" listening to Terry Gross' 1985 interview with the legendary folksinger who has inspired so many, including me.

I wrote a letter to Pete Seeger back in August 2013 asking for his advice about how to spread the message of making music to more people, and included a printout of my "20 Jam Tips" for making music with friends.

To my astonishment and delight, yesterday, the day after his passing, Pete Seeger's response came back. His letter was written in the margins of mine and signed "Pete" with his iconic hand-drawn banjo.

Here's what he wrote:
Dear Kim - I've read this article several times. I think your article on jamming is wonderful and should be printed, not just in Sing Out, but in other magazines as well and issued as a lovely pamphlet, on good paper, with good drawings on the cover. 
But I'm now 94 and can't help much. My health is not good and I'm being cared for by my daughter Tinya. You stay well, keep on. 
94-year-old Pete (with banjo drawing)   Jan. 2014
After sharing this news with a number of friends, it spread to Jason Verlinde, who wrote this wonderful story for Fretboard Journal, including some photos of the letter. Rachel Leibrock has a nice writeup too in the Sacramento News and Review

Here is a closeup scan for a closer look:

It appears I've got some pamphlet printing to get to! Rest in peace Pete Seeger, and thanks for teaching us how to sing along.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

"Learn to Jam!": 20 Tips for Making Music with Friends

Since 2005 I have made a point of getting together with friends on a regular basis to make music. It's always on Thursday nights and it's called "Music Night".
I recently shared my 20 Jam Tips with legendary folk singer Pete Seeger. He urged me to share them with a wider audience. Here's a quick rundown of the material I plan to put into a "lovely pamphlet", per Pete Seeger's advice:

20 Jam Tips

(i.e. Jam Etiquette or “Jamiquette”)

1. Always tune – spend $20 to get a good electronic tuner to clip on your instrument and use frequently.

2. Identify a few songs you want to play and learn them. Find the chords and lyrics online ( is a great resource) and create songsheets. Find YouTube videos of people playing those songs and play along. Memorize the words and chords so you can play those songs without a songsheet.

3. Put together a binder of your songs and start building your repertoire. Bring your binder with you to jams. Keep your songs roughly in alphabetical order so you can find them quickly. Plastic sleeves make it easier to shuffle songs around & keep songsheets weatherproof.

4. Most songs played are made up of three chords and usually begin on the chord of the key the song is in. Learn the chord sets, the 1-4-5 rule, and practice chord changes within each key and you will be able to play 90% of the songs played in any jam. If you play guitar, learn and use “cheater” bar chords (playing only the bottom four strings) to be able to transition more quickly between chords.

(A/D/E – C/F/G – D/G/A – E/A/B – F/Bb/C – G/C/D).

5. A major chord works in place of a 7th chord almost always (i.e. G/G7, C/C7 etc.)

6. If you play guitar and don’t know the chords to a song being played, watch the hands of someone who does. If you play another instrument learn to recognize guitar chords.

7. Let the songleader lead – even if the song sheet in front of you has different words or a different order for the song parts, let the songleader lead it as he/she wishes, with instrumental breaks, changes in lyrics etc.

8. Wait your turn. Jamming is a “small d” democratic pastime. Generally everyone sits in a circle and each person takes a turn to suggest a song. In more casual, established circles it might be more of a free for all, in which case you should feel free to call out a song when there is a lull – the idea is to avoid monopolizing song suggestions.

9. When it’s your turn, it’s your choice. Be ready to pick a song when it’s your turn. You can lead the song, or suggest a song someone else can lead that you want to hear or play along with.

10. Play appropriate to the jam - suggest songs that are in the style the jam group is playing (country, 70’s rock, bluegrass etc.) and play appropriate instruments (ex: don’t bring electric guitars to an acoustic jam).

11. Call out the chords before you start the song and demonstrate how the “A” and “B” parts of the song go before you actually start playing it.

12. Songleading is hard and requires multitasking: singing, playing, keeping the tempo to the song steady, and watching for people who want to do instrumentals. Take breaks for instrumentals if you have people who want to play them. When it comes time to call them to play, call their name or instrument, or just make eye contact and nod your head or point your finger at them.

13. Get quiet for the instrumentals . The act of calling out an instrumentalist can be very subtle which is why it’s important for all players to pay attention and notice when an instrumental is underway. In an acoustic jam, especially big ones, it can be hard to hear the instrumentalists, so to amplify these players other players will “get quiet” on their instruments.

14. Watch for the end – it’s up to the songleader to decide when a song ends, and he/she will let you know the song is wrapping up by sticking their foot out or calling out “repeat that last line!”. Songleaders may also suggest an “a capella” moment in a song when all instruments are silent – be sure to watch for those too!

15. If you are leading a song, play it all the way through, don’t stop in the middle of it. If you forget the words just repeat a verse you already sang, whistle, sing “meow meow meow….” instead, invite an instrumental interlude or improvise in some other way. You can also bring a song to a premature end and skip verses if it’s really not working. If you start out in the wrong key, change it at the beginning.

16. Avoid using a capo, it makes you hard to follow. If you must use a capo, identify someone else in the group who knows the chords who other people can follow.

17. You don’t have to play every song. If you’re having trouble playing a song, don’t play the wrong chords – use your instrument instead to keep the beat, or sing along, or sit it out, tune, refresh your drink, take a break.

18. Ideally, jam songs are three chord or four chord songs. Five chords is about the maximum. Don’t select songs with too many chords or funky chords that no one knows (unless you all have the same songsheets or lots of people know the song by heart). Such songs are affectionately known as “jambusters”.

19. Don’t record or take pictures without permission. Jamming is not a performance, it’s an interactive experience that can be deeply personal and emotional. Taking pictures or recording people while they are playing can be very distracting and change the nature of the jam if players suddenly feel they must perform for the camera. Many jammers are shy and inexperienced, and often feel they are not “good enough” to play in front of others, so taking pictures or recording is also discouraged for this reason.

20. If you are sitting in the circle, you are in the jam. If you want to chat with someone, smoke, text or talk on the phone, respect other players and move out of the circle.