The Sunday Take

The Sunday Take: Why Should California Vote for a Non-Voter?

By Dan Balz
Sunday, September 27, 2009

Meg Whitman owes the voters of California more than an apology.

The successful former CEO of eBay is a Republican candidate for governor in 2010. She is running as someone who will bring the skills of the boardroom to the serious economic problems afflicting her adopted home state. Because of her success in the business world and the personal fortune she's prepared to invest in the race, she is one of the leading candidates to succeed Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R).

But the formal launch of her candidacy last week was disrupted by a damaging report in the Sacramento Bee. Though Whitman seeks to lead one of the biggest and most troubled governments in the world, when it comes to politics, she has been -- to put it kindly -- an absentee citizen for much of her adult life.

The Bee article examined Whitman's voting record in California and in the other states where she has lived since becoming eligible to vote. The Bee said that Whitman had voted infrequently in the past half-dozen years and that it could find no evidence she was even registered to vote before 2002.

Whitman disputed that last finding, saying she had been registered before 2002. Rather than producing the evidence, she challenged the paper to find it. Whether county voting records dating back 10, 15 or 20 years are complete enough or accurate enough to resolve that dispute isn't clear. Nor is it really a necessary question, for there is no doubting that Whitman has a poor record as a voter.

In recent years, as she has made the transition from business executive to politician, Whitman has become a more consistent voter. On her campaign Web site, she declares that "we all love California too much to let it fail." But for unexplained reasons, she took a pass from participating in two of the most important elections that have shaped California's politics this decade.

In 2003, she skipped the recall election that ousted Democratic Gov. Gray Davis and installed Schwarzenegger. Few elections in the state's history have attracted as much attention, with about 9 million people voting. Not Whitman.

She also did not vote in the 2005 special election in which Schwarzenegger was badly defeated in his attempt to win approval for initiatives designed to reform the political and governing process, including one that would have given the governor more power to constrain state spending.

Though she did not bother to participate in that election, she has said that, if elected, she would actively use the initiative process to try to fix a state that has become almost ungovernable. What did she learn from Schwarzenegger's experience with the initiative process?

Whitman also pledges to cut at least $15 billion in spending, though without some of the powers Schwarzenegger was seeking. Would she seek similar powers as those the incumbent sought, and if not, how would she deal with a Democratic-controlled legislature that often has other priorities?

Certainly not every citizen has a perfect record of voting in national, state and local elections. Nor do some people who have sought election to office. Schwarzenegger did not vote in the 1996 and 2000 presidential primary or general elections. Carly Fiorina, the former CEO of Hewlett-Packard and a prospective Republican candidate for Senate in California next year, skipped the presidential primaries in 2000 and 2004 and the primary and general elections in 2006.

Failure to vote from time to time is understandable and has rarely been seen as disqualifying for those seeking public office. But Whitman's record appears to go beyond occasional absences. Setting aside the question of whether she was registered before 2002, her slender record is striking for its apparent indifference to the political process.

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