June 5 is Election Day, as you are told when you read the papers or watch TV or check out this, your favorite blog.
But today is Election Day too. Most Californians who vote these days vote by mail, and the first vote-by-mail ballots went out Monday.
Ballots are already being cast. Elections in California are now, as a very practical matter, a month long.
Which is why the greatest political heat won’t come in early June in the few days before the election. That heat is now. Campaigns and media have come to recognize this change.
That’s why California’s major newspapers – who once waited until the day before the official election day to issue their endorsements – have already made their endorsements in major candidate races and ballot initiatives already.
If they were allow too many endorsements to bleed into even mid-May, many people would be reading the endorsements after they had already voted.
But there has still not been enough thinking about how to make better use of this month to make the election system work better, and to encourage participation and civic engagement. If the election is a month long, why open the polls only on one Tuesday at the end?
Why not open polls for a weekend or two during the month-long election period instead, and use Election Day as merely a deadline for casting ballots?
The opportunities and problems presented by our switch to vote-by-mail – as opposed to the secret ballot in the poll booth – also haven’t been thought about carefully enough.
Vote-by-mail permits citizens to cast ballots in a time and place of their choosing. Why should that be alone in their home?
If civic engagement and participation are such important goals, why not create ways for people to vote together?
At parties. Or in parades.
This might attract more people, bring people together in conversation, and celebration of their voting rights and their citizenship.
This is not a new idea. In the era before the secret ballot, election day was full of parade and public events tied to the polls. The trick to creating a new participatory public culture about voting is to recover that spirit – while strictly policing any attempt to use intimidation to influence how people might vote.
Certainly, vote-by-mail offers plenty of social opportunities for the era of social networking.
Lead Prop Zero blogger Joe Mathews is California editor at Zocalo Public Square, a fellow at Arizona State University’s Center for Social Cohesion, and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (University of California, 2010).