The Riggs Report: Four Decades of Election Night Reporting

California’s politics have been dramatically transformed

It was November 1978, fresh with a journalism degree from Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, when I first went on the air to broadcast election returns in California. Last week’s election night at KCRA-TV marked the 40 year point for me of covering elections in this state. What’s changed during that period? Except for slow results, and the presence of Jerry Brown, pretty much everything.

Technology, of course. In 1978, we got bulletins at my radio station, KATY in San Luis Obispo, from paper we cleared and ripped from the Associated Press wire machine. Breaking news was signified by a series of bells that rang, amid the clatter of the mechanical keys.

At the county clerk’s office on election night, we waited for printed handouts from the elections staff. Depending on where ballots had to be trucked in from, the tabulation of the results could be agonizingly slow. Later, when I worked in Santa Barbara, the only certainty of the night was that the returns from the north county, Santa Maria, would be late. Often because a truck had broken down somewhere on the journey south on the 101.

I don’t remember a lot of detail from that election night in 1978, except that Jerry Brown was cruising to a comfortable reelection to his second term as governor. After opposing the passage of Proposition 13, the landmark property tax-cutting measure in the June primary, Brown abruptly pivoted to become an advocate of tax cuts. It was a winning tactic.

Talk about a political anomaly. Four decades later, Brown is wrapping up his tenure as the longest-serving governor in California history. Four terms, separated by a 28 year gap. Students who graduated from college in 1976, and those who graduated in 2018, have Jerry Brown’s signature on their diplomas.

Today, we have instant technology to collect and tally the vote. But in close races, such as a handful of contested House seats, we still have to wait for the results. That’s not due to broken-down trucks or staff ineptitude. It has to do with California’s aggressive efforts to expand voter participation, which allows Election Day registration and allows ballots to count if they arrive three days later, as long as they have a Tuesday postmark.

Those provisions, plus the sheer size of California’s electorate, mean the instant results we would like often have to wait.

The most significant change has to do with the political landscape and how blue the state has become. In 1978, California’s two U.S. Senators were split between the major parties, Republican S.I. Hayakawa and Democrat Alan Cranston. California had 43 members of the House back then, with 17 Republicans and 26 Democrats.

Now, it’s lopsided. Democrats hold both U.S. Senate seats and all of the state’s constitutional offices. Democrats hold a supermajority in both houses of the state Legislature. The House delegation now stands at 10 Republicans and 43 Democrats. The Republicans are at risk of losing three more of those seats, depending on the outcome of vote totals that are still being tallied.

California’s transformation into a virtually one-party-ruled state is due to many things, including President Trump’s high disapproval rating here. From a checks-and-balances perspective, that carries a lot of problems.

What’s next? The 2020 election, of course, and the certainty that Jerry Brown is finished with elective office. Maybe.