Book review: When elections mattered a lot

mal imageA review of Game Changers: Twelve Elections That Transformed California, by Steve Swatt, with Susie Swatt, Jeff Raimundo, and Rebecca LaVally; foreword by Bruce E. Cain; published by Heyday

**** — 4 out of 5 stars

The usual argument to persuade reluctant or lazy people to go to the polls is that sometimes elections turn on a single vote. Though this has indeed happened on occasion, such situations are exceedingly rare. In any case, the knee-jerk response to that argument is much more likely to be that elections don’t matter — that nothing ever changes. So it should be far more effective to argue that elections sometimes have enormous, long-term consequences for our lives. This is the theme of Game Changers, a compendium of thirteen articles about the most consequential elections in California history. The book, which won a CHS Book Award, was published by Berkeley’s Heyday.

California has been a state since 1850. In the 165 years that have transpired since then, Californians have witnessed a virtually uncountable number of elections. In writing Game Changers, political analyst Steve Swatt and three collaborators selected just one dozen large-scale election contests as the “Twelve Elections That Transformed California.”

Spanning the years from 1861 to 1990, Game Changers encompasses five gubernatorial elections: those that elevated Leland Stanford, Hiram Johnson, Earl Warren, and Pat Brown to the Governor’s Mansion, and “California’s dirtiest election” in 1934 when Upton Sinclair’s radical movement was destroyed.


Four initiative campaigns made the grade as well: those that brought us a full-time legislature (1966), campaign finance reform (1974), tax-slashing Proposition 13 (1978), and term limits (1990). The book also includes the ratification in 1879 of the state’s new constitution, the approval in Los Angeles of the first big bond that financed the aqueduct from Owens Valley, and what seems a strangely contrived account of the 1980 legislative elections when targeted voter persuasion mail was first used statewide.

A thirteenth chapter includes five elections that were clearly important in hindsight even if the authors didn’t believe that they rose to the level of the twelve discussed at greater length earlier in the book. These include Proposition 187 in 1994, when voters denied public education and health and welfare services to undocumented immigrants; the 1998 statewide elections for Governor and on an Indian gaming initiative that both brought record-setting amounts of money into play; the 2003 recall of Governor Gray Davis; and the adoption of “open primaries” in 2010. Time will tell whether one or more of these elections proves to be “game-changing” in the long run. Certainly, there are people today who would already see them that way: undocumented immigrants, Native Americans, Gray Davis, and the liberal Democrats who proved unable to appeal to the Republicans who voted in the state’s new open primaries…

Continue reading on Mal Warwick’s Blog on Books.

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