As the home of Silicon Valley and cradle of the innovation economy, California often sneers at states like Mississippi, which perennially rank near the bottom of national rankings of states on things like obesity and economic indicators. But a new report on how states conduct their elections puts California very near the bottom, just above Mississippi, which ranks 50th.

These are not the 49ers we generally have in mind when we think of California.

The study, by the Pew Charitable Trusts, faults California for several things, including:

  • The common use of provisional ballots, which are given to voters by poll workers unsure the voters are actually eligible to vote
  • The low rate of voter registration and voter turnout
  • The lack of voter information look-up tools
  • The high number of unreturned mail-in ballots

“I was shocked, too,” says Pew’s David Becker, who wrote the report. “I’m a Californian, too. The counties have tried to deal with some of this by adopting technology on their own, but of course it’s really the state that needs to coordinate all the counties and offer some of these technological tools.”

Secretary of State Debra Bowen disputes some of Pew's findings. (Netroots Nation/Flickr)
Secretary of State Debra Bowen disputes some of Pew’s findings.(Netroots Nation/Flickr)

Secretary of State Debra Bowen takes strong issue with the Pew report and two others like it in 2008 and 2010, which also ranked California near the bottom.

“California has something unique – a function of the choice that a voter can have a mail-in ballot sent to them automatically,” said Bowen in a phone interview. “That means we have more people coming to the voting place who got a ballot but can’t find it. Or who mailed back a ballot but can’t verify that it was received, and so vote provisionally to make sure they have a ballot cast. In both cases  it’s to make certain that a person can vote but to prevent anyone from casting two ballots.”

Bowen disputes Pew’s numbers, and insists California does in fact have some of the online tools Pew says don’t exist (For the record, I tried to locate the “find your polling place” search on the SOS website and found it unhelpful).

“I’m as frustrated by the low voter turnout and registration as anyone,” says Bowen. “That’s why I put the voter registration form online. But I can’t go hold everyone’s hand and get them to register to vote. I’ve been working very hard to change the way we teach civics. Because no voter registration system can make up for the lack of instruction in democracy and in civics.”

Bowen is termed out, so any further improvements in California’s election system will likely be carried out by her successor.

  • Ealeslie

    You can always find your polling place and entire ballot on the nonpartisan website from the League of Women Voters of California Education Fund –


Scott Shafer

Scott Shafer migrated to KQED in 1998 after extended stints in politics and government to host The California  Report. Now he covers those things and more as senior editor for KQED's Politics and Government Desk. When he's not asking questions you'll often find him in a pool playing water polo. Find him on Twitter @scottshafer

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