“Responsibility for the Future” – Voting and Political Participation in Our County

This year we celebrate the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, when women “got” the vote, to use the common way of phrasing the impact of the amendment. But this achievement was not handed over as a gift; it came about through massive political participation and decades-long protests of non-voting stakeholders: women of all races and classes. We thought this year would be spent recognizing this milestone in the maturing of our democracy, there would be marches and galas, we would sing and fete and raise a glass (even if our sisters from the Temperance Movement are frowning upon us from the heavens). Alas, no. The year 2020 brought a pandemic, massive unemployment for the majority of the year, and racial unrest, all of which swept away the jubilant mood and raised concern for systemic problems that must be solved to bring about a just democracy for all. We have much to accomplish, if we are to live up to the ideals embodied in a simple act of citizenship: voting. Courtney Masella O’Brien tells us the story of the 19th amendment and its corollary, the Equal Rights Amendment, which has not yet joined its older sister on the books. As she writes, much of what started in 1848 is yet to be done.

This year we are concerned not only about the act of voting, but with the act of receiving and counting the votes. We must remember those who serve in our elections, keeping them peaceful and fair. I usually thank my precinct’s poll workers profusely, and tell them that they are very handsome, striking even—positively each and every one of them. They laugh politely, and I hope they understand the intent behind my levity. (I would certainly not be able to spend a day patiently handing out the ballots and pens.) This year, many of us will choose to drop off our ballot at one of the receptacles placed at certain public squares and will not have a chance to thank and joke with the poll workers.  As Ann Battin writes in her excellent summary, we have many options to place our ballots safely in the hands of those who will tally them. (I will have to draw an emoji on my outside envelope to reflect my usual sentiments.)

Matthew Cody’s informative article details the legal and political challenges surrounding Governor Newsom’s executive order mandating that mail-in ballots be sent to each California registered voter. While many news organizations report on the national debate surrounding the mail-in ballots, Matt’s article provides much needed nuance and detail for a deeper understanding of the issues surrounding, in particular, California’s election process.

California was also among the first states to adopt the trifecta of direct democracy: the initiative, referendum, and recall. Since 1911, however, our state has been most famous for the multitude of ballot proposals urged upon the voters, some more opaque than others, and the process drastically altered the state’s political landscape. As Christina Weed explains (with a small contribution from yours truly), the state’s landmark Prop. 13 changed property taxation (and the passing of any tax increases) for generations to come. This year, we will have a chance to cast a correcting vote regarding one of the major aspects of that famous ballot item, that is, the property taxation levied on commercial real estate.

There are also other avenues of political participation open to us. We could join forces with other lawyer groups at the Conference of California Bar Associations (CCBA) and suggest some much-needed revisions to the laws. As Maggie Grover writes, CCBA’s delegates have been quite successful with their proposals and several of our members have achieved a statutory change to provisions that, as they learned in their practice, produced undesirable results or unintended consequences.  Participating in the making of legislative changes, even by reviewing and up- or down-voting suggested changes, is but one of the ways to effect change in policy as a lawyer.

As lawyers, we could also choose to run for political office: several local lawyers have already done so. In an interview with a few of them, we asked for their “origin stories.” In turn, they gave give us invaluable advice should we choose to follow their lead. It is my sincere hope that many of us will elect to do so in the coming years. I would like to thank here Candace Andersen, Kristina Lawson, Inga Miller, Courtney Masella O’Brien, Jerome Pandell, and Mister Phillips for their time and consideration for this article.

A heartfelt thank-you goes to the authors of these wonderful pieces. Bringing these voices together was an enlightening adventure, and I learned tremendously from the wonderful writers of this issue. Carole Lucido and Marcus Brown were ever so patient with me and provided just the gentle editor’s touch the pieces needed. I am quite indebted to them. And my thanks also to the Contra Costa Lawyer Editorial Board for entrusting me to steer this issue about our sacred, but often vexing, political processes.