State Spotlight:
California Secretary of State Office

Though the California Secretary of State Office’s purview covers business, campaign and lobbying filings, the state Domestic Partners Registry, and historical treasures, most Californians know the Secretary of State Office (SOS) as the agency that runs and oversees elections. SOS spokeswoman Kate Folmar says, “Our goal is to make civic engagement the habit of a lifetime.” To reach new or reticent voters, Secretary of State Debra Bowen and her elections team run the immensely popular MyVote California project.

Like the Easy Voter Guide on which the SOS has partnered with the California State Library and the League of Women Voters, MyVote California clarifies the election process for a broad swath of California voters. The program helps Californians learn about voting, candidates, and issues in ways that not only explicate official election data, but also make it fun.

The SOS’s Folmar says, “We’ve designed our voter education and outreach program [MyVote California], to engage everyone from California students to working folks. In addition to high school mock elections, we increase awareness in voters of all ages through the points of contact of businesses and chambers of commerce.”

Mock election brings voting “excitement” to California youth

Secretary of State Bowen believes it is never too early to connect young people with “voting excitement,” says Folmar. To do this, Bowen and Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell invite middle and high school students, teachers and principals to participate in the MyVote California Student Mock Election, a program that weaves real-time democratic “excitement” into California’s high school curriculum. As teens research issues and candidates, they discover that a republic is not a subject on an exam, but a system that thrives on informed citizens like them.

When California’s students participate in the MyVote California mock election this fall, they’ll learn about democracy as no others before them. “This is a tremendously historic presidential election year,” Folmar says. “It’s the first time since 1952 that we have neither an incumbent President nor Vice President running. The nation has the first chance to elect an African American, or a Vietnam veteran. Secretary Bowen wants young people to tap into this remarkable moment.”

In January 2008, more than 450 schools, and more than 240,000 students, signed up to vote in California’s first mock presidential primary. Because the SOS worked with the Department of Education, the curriculum guides and creative campaign-related activities teachers and principals downloaded from the SOS website were “standards-based.” Educators held debates, conducted candidate role-plays and even paired official voter registration drives with their schools’ mock elections. In January, California students favored Barack Obama over Hillary Clinton, and John McCain over Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee.

Kennedy High School votes, ignites student action

At Sacramento’s John F. Kennedy High School, Advanced Placement US Government and Political Science teacher Alida Imbrecht says the mock election, “Woke up the student body to their value in the democratic process.”

Imbrecht’s 29-member class will all be eligible to vote in the November presidential election. During an informal class discussion with CSL Connection, the students agreed that political “apathy” prevails on campus. Michael Panush, 18, articulating another common student view, said, “Voting doesn’t do anything – all the candidates have the same corporate sponsors.” The class also concurred though that MyVote California lit a fire under the student body. “Young people see [through MyVote California] that voting in huge numbers changes things that affect their lives, and they vote,” said 18-year-old Theresa Dyer.

“The mock election made me research ballot issues of which I hadn’t thought before,” commented CSU Chico-bound Maurice Conner. “I’m passionate about gay rights,” said Emily Clark, 18. “I liked checking out the candidates [in the mock election] because I’m going to vote for a candidate who supports [gay rights].”

Andy Nevis helped organize the Kennedy mock election. Nevis, who will be a UC Berkeley freshman in the fall, said, “The facts everyone unearthed made them care about the Iraq war, immigration, global warming, and more. Students talked about the Bush Administration not responding to citizen concerns and ‘change’ became a very hot topic on our campus. Now people are going to go to the polls and even do grass-roots volunteering.”

MyVote: Democracy at Work

Only about 40% of eligible Californians participated in the last statewide general election in November 2006. Secretary of State Bowen wants to improve that number by enlisting businesses to increase voter awareness. MyVote: Democracy at Work, the project through which businesses partner with the SOS, encourages employees and customers to participate in democracy. Businesses participating in MyVote: Democracy at Work create paycheck inserts, text messages and emails that persuade people to register to vote.

Thanks to the MyVote Democracy at Work project, Debbie O’Donoghue, Deputy Secretary of State for Voter Education and Outreach, reports that the SOS has reached 150 business organizations including the California Controller’s Office, Palo Alto utilities, Alameda utilities, Southern California’s South Bay Association of Chambers of Commerce and other Chambers of Commerce across the state.

For more information about MyVote California, please contact Debbie O’Donoghue at (916) 653-6173.


Easy Voter Guide

Some people avoid voting because they fear making the “wrong” election choice. They want to educate themselves on the issues and the candidates but ballot materials, in their austere and bureaucratic language, demand strong literacy skills. The nonpartisan Easy Voter Guide solves these challenges by making complex election issues, and the voting process, accessible for countless California voters.

The California Secretary of State's Office (SOS) concurs with its Easy Voter Guide partners, the League of Women Voters of California Education Fund and the California State Library, that new and busy voters require an alternative to the official Voter Information Guide. The Legislative Analyst reviews the Easy Voter Guide for accuracy and the Secretary of State helps get the word out by including the Guide in its My Vote California online materials. To promote the Guide’s availability, the SOS also ships Easy Voter Guide samples to hundreds of organizations. The SOS continues to fund translations of the Easy Voter Guide into Chinese, Japanese, Spanish and Tagalog (download only).

The leading organizations that provide the resources and funding for the Easy Voter Guide are the League of Women Voters of California Education Fund with support from The James Irvine Foundation and other private funders, the California Secretary of State's Office, and the California State Library.

The Easy Voter Guide is part of a project that also includes an easy to navigate website. Visitors clicking on www.easyvoter.org site find:

  • The Easy Voter Guide available online in html, as a printable PDF in seven languages.
  • Extensive links to additional resources for each proposition plus background on key issues in the election.
  • In-language web pages and materials to download in English, Spanish, Chinese, Vietnamese and Korean, Japanese and Tagalog including step-by-step photos for new voters.
  • A new “Learn about the Issues” tab that groups “the issues your care about” by topic.
  • A highly visual “All About Voting” section that addresses the most common questions and misconceptions about the voting process.
  • A comprehensive resource section for groups engaged in voter education and outreach – with handouts, workbooks, workshops and links to related resources.
  • A ballot and polling place look-up provided by www.smartvoter.org.

Supporting the Easy Voter Guide Project is, as for the the SOS Office, just one way the California State Library serves Californians. State Librarian of California Susan Hildreth says, “Many Californians are turned off by the long ballots. Our goal is to help people cut through the clutter to find and understand the issues they care about in this election.”

Thanks to the SOS, the California State Library, the League of Women Voters of California Education Fund, and the remarkable Californians behind the Easy Voter Guide Project, “cutting through the clutter” of 2008’s California election information, will be easier, for everyone.

For more information about the Easy Voter Guide Project please contact Project Manager Lisa Frederiksen Bohannon with the League of Women Voters of California Education Fund at (916) 442-7215 or via email easyvoter@lwvc.org or visit www.easyvoter.org.
  

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