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Californians won’t vote. Blame the gamification of elections

For the past month, my mail-in ballots for the upcoming primary election have been sitting on my kitchen counter, gathering dust. I pass by it every day. I even put a pen on it to remind me to fill it out, to fulfill my civic duty. However, I can't bring myself to break open the seal.

And it's not just me.

As of Monday, only about 14% of California's roughly 22 million registered voters had returned their ballots. Paul Mitchell, vice president of Political Data, predicts turnout will eventually reach 30%, one of the lowest in recent history.

He and other experts offer all sorts of explanations as to why this is happening. The main problem is that very few people are excited to vote, or they don't feel the need to vote because it doesn't make much of a difference either way.

For example, in the primary elections to nominate presidential candidates, the Democratic and Republican parties almost always decide the winner. Like it or not, we're in for a rematch of the old man: Joe Biden vs. Donald Trump.

One example is the Senate race to replace LaFonza Butler, who was appointed to fill Dianne Feinstein's seat after her death. That's what racing is becoming, one of the most expensive Few voters appear to care about this, since it is almost certain that a Democratic victory in November and partisan control of the Senate will remain unchanged for the first time in California's history.

Add to that the procrastination of garden varieties. What's more, many voters may be so busy juggling multiple jobs to make ends meet and support their families that they don't even know an election is taking place. It is not surprising that the percentage of returned votes is so small.

But I suspect there's something else going on. And assuming our democracy lasts that long, that could become a more common reason for voter apathy in the coming decades.

“Vote for the person you think is best suited for the position or the person you think best represents your interests.”

This time it's about mass gamification of elections.

It's more like fantasy football than rooting for the home team in red or blue. It's more like chess than checkers. There is a slow shift from thinking of voting simply as an act of civic duty. Rather, it is becoming a series of strategic decisions and complex calculations made in a desperate attempt to elect a political government that will actually improve our lives.

In reality, gamification is like obsessively reading polls to gain an edge or dispel rumors about your political party. Or they may “waste” votes for a candidate they want to win, even if polls say they won't win, because they want to send a message to the political establishment. Or, my favorite, vote for the candidate you hate in the primary to help the candidate you like win the general election.

Of course, not all of this is new. We've been told for decades to “vote for the lesser of two evils.” The country's electoral process has always been imperfect.

But right now, with so many democratic ideals in such existential crisis, so many candidates running in a deeply divided and gerrymandered country are getting the results we want by close margins. There seems to be a sudden need for gamification of elections.

“Many ordinary voters are behaving in much the same way as the commentators they watch on Fox News and cable TV,” Mitchell told me. “Right now, a lot of our news is infotainment, and a lot of the infotainment about politics is similar to sports gamesmanship. It's like post-game analysis of elections. And people think about elections. When we do, we go into post-game analysis mode.”

Consider that a number of third-party presidential candidates could be on the ballot in some, but not all, states in November. Fraudulent candidates could be leveraged as particularly powerful players in gamification, especially this election season.

According to the latest information University of California, Berkeley Institute of Government Poll The campaign, co-sponsored by the Times, shows Mr. Biden leading Mr. Trump by 18 points among California voters. mano a mano. But when additional candidates are in the mix — Cornel West, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. For example, the lead with Jill Stein is down to 12 points. Polls in battleground states show similar results.

If enough people lose interest through gamification's complex math and choose to vote for a third-party candidate or just stay home, Biden could lose the election.

There are people like this too. A lot of them.

Over the past few months, I've attended packed campaign rallies for Mr. West and Mr. Kennedy. I've met many supporters who say they've heard all the warnings about using their votes to enable Trump's return, but they don't care. They don't want to play games. They will either choose the candidate they like or choose not to vote at all in hopes of pushing our political system further left or right.

One 30-year-old black woman told me in January as she waited to meet West in a long line that stretched out the door of a Leimert Park coffee shop. to me. I am not tied to any particular political party. I feel like I need something that I feel I can resonate with. And someone who really sees me as an individual. ”

If that candidate isn't listed on the mail-in ballot, she won't bother filling it out.

Then there's the gamification we saw in the Michigan Democratic presidential primary two weeks ago.

Fed up with the Biden administration's war policies and the resulting humanitarian crisis in Gaza, more than 100,000 voters, many of them Muslim and Arab-American, chose “irresponsible” on their ballots. It was a protest vote aimed at pressuring Mr. Biden to seek a permanent cease-fire, or else lose key support in swing states in the Midwest.

Divisions have exploded on social media over what the November election means. Genuine self-styled experts say that depending on whether you count the actual number of uncommitted votes or just a percentage, these voters either sent a powerful message to Biden or accomplished nothing. The raft asserted itself with authority.

I don't participate in Rorschach tests. But activists are pushing similar protest votes in other states, including Pennsylvania, Minnesota and Washington, aiming to further game the system. At least in Washington It seems to be taking rootmajor labor unions, UFCW3000endorsed this dedication tactic ahead of the state's March 12 primary election.

But I agree with Maxwell Stearns, a law professor at the University of Maryland and author of “Parliamentary America: The Least Radical Means of Radically Repairing Our Broken Democracy.” He sees what happened in Michigan as a “major breakdown” in the electoral process.

“What this really shows is that our two-party system leaves us with a lack of meaningful options for taking strong positions that conflict with parties that are naturally aligned.” he told me.

In fact, Stearns' book offers a multi-step strategy for reforming elections to make it easier to elect better candidates without resorting to such gamification. Still, some will argue that the well-intentioned reforms we've seen so far, whether ranked-choice voting or open primaries, haven't helped much.

“These are things that worked well for me in my graduate-level game theory course at university,” Mitchell says. “However, when applied, there is an opportunity cost associated with changing the electoral system.”

That opportunity cost could be voter confusion, or in my case, anxiety and avoidance.

That's when I remember why my ballot was sitting unopened on my kitchen counter. It's about the senatorial election.

If I were to vote for the candidate who best represents my interests, it would be Congresswoman Barbara Lee of Oakland. But I also want an infusion of progressive politics in the Senate, and I worry that voting for Mr. Lee will undermine that.

In the primary, Republican Steve Garvey was supported by 27% of voters, followed by Rep. Adam B. Schiff of Burbank with 25%, according to a UC Berkeley/Times poll. In addition to Lee with 8%, another progressive candidate, Rep. Katie Porter of Irvine, received 19%.

In a general election between the top two candidates — we don't even need a poll for this — Mr. Schiff would easily defeat Mr. Garvey in most of the California Democratic Party. However, the battle between Schiff and Porter will likely become even closer, with Porter likely dragging Schiff further to the left. And it's important to point out that all of this is happening only because Schiff's camp has turned the election into a game, boosting Garvey and increasing turnout among Republican voters in the primary. It won't happen.

So, to gamify or not to gamify? I asked Mitchell what I should do.

“Vote for whoever you like in a race where you know who you like,” he replied. “And if you don't know who you like in the race, just skip it. Make your life easier. Put in your ballot.”

I received similar advice Sunday night from a black woman who drove from Long Beach to attend Mr. Lee's rally in South Los Angeles. “Just vote with hope.” She echoed Mr Lee's own words on Monday when he told voters not to get discouraged by the polls because that's the name of the game.

I'm also tired of playing. I'm going to dust off my ballot and vote for Lee.

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