Residents of this small mountain town in northeastern California will vote on Tuesday, as they have religiously – and at uncommonly high rates – for many years.
This owes much to habit and a sense of civic pride. The election itself isn’t exactly grabbing anyone’s attention.
Across California, voter turnout in the primary election is expected to match or surpass record lows. Even here in Sierra County – where 73 percent of registered voters cast ballots in the last gubernatorial primary election, the most of any county that year – enthusiasm is hard to find.
There are no citizen initiatives on the ballot, and the race for governor, a top-of-the-ticket contest that typically stirs voter passions, is so uninspiring that the incumbent, Jerry Brown, has hardly bothered to campaign.
“You ever seen an election for the governorship so ... poorly done?” Jack Marshall, a retired timber salesman for the U.S. Forest Service, said over coffee in the storeroom of a Downieville gas station one day last week. “It’s awful.”
But Marshall said he doesn’t sit elections out, so he mailed in his ballot.
Heather Foster, the county clerk-recorder, expects about three-quarters of the county’s 2,200 registered voters to do the same. All voting in the rural county is done by mail, which tends to increase turnout. The people who live here – older, whiter, more conservative – are the kind of voters who participate more reliably in primary elections.
Statewide, the picture is bleaker. Early mail ballot counts suggest turnout could dip below 30 percent of registered voters, possibly surpassing California’s all-time low of 28.2 percent in the June 2008 primary election. That total does not include the millions of residents who are eligible to vote but are not registered.
“It could be historically low,” said Eric McGhee, a research fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California who has studied primary election turnout. “There’s just not a lot of motivation to bring people to the polls.”
The governor’s race is a primary culprit. Brown, a Democrat, is widely expected to finish first Tuesday, and the two main Republicans, Neel Kashkari and Tim Donnelly, are underfunded and little known.
Donnelly and Kashkari both spent the final weekend before the election walking precincts, and Kashkari sent another in a series of mail pieces to voters. A USC/Los Angeles Times poll released Sunday shows the two Republicans in a statistical dead heat.
But neither candidate raised enough money to fund a sustained get-out-the-vote effort.
Kashkari, who poured $2 million of his own money into the campaign, aired some television advertisements, but spending was nowhere near as robust as candidates have put up in previous years. Donnelly could not afford to go on TV at all, with significant implications for turnout: A politician’s ads not only tell voters something about a candidate but also remind them an election is on the horizon.
“Most people get their information kind of force-fed to them by television,” said Mark DiCamillo, director of the Field Poll.
In a more engaging year, candidates spend money in primary elections to “awaken voters that it’s election time again,” DiCamillo said. This year, he said, “the amount of television advertising is minuscule, so (the election) hasn’t really hit the public’s radar screen.”
In the storeroom at Downieville Motors, a four-pump stop near a river fork off Highway 49, Marshall went down the ballot in his head. He knows the higher-profile incumbent statewide officeholders, all Democrats. But he had seen nothing from their challengers on TV, and he asked his friends seated with him around a table in the storeroom – three Republicans, including Marshall, and one Democrat – if they could name any Republican in those contests.
“Do you honest to God know any of the Republicans at all?” he asked.
Under California’s top-two voting system, the names of state and congressional candidates now appear together on the ballot regardless of party, with the top-two finishers advancing to November. One of the promises of the system when it was adopted in 2010 was that giving voters more candidate choices in primary elections would encourage higher participation.
But turnout in the 2012 primary election was the second-lowest on record in California, and in retrospect, the PPIC’s McGhee said in a report in May, the top-two system may not have much effect on turnout at all.
Independent voters or partisans might prefer to vote for a candidate from another party, McGhee said, but whether they are motivated to fill out a ballot at all still depends on there being interesting races and initiatives.
The Tuesday election features two initiatives placed on the ballot by the state Legislature – one having to do with veterans housing and the other with public records. But there are no citizen initiatives. Brown signed legislation in 2011 restricting those initiatives to November elections, where turnout is higher and more advantageous for Democrats.
For primary elections, McGhee wrote “there are reasons to believe that turnout will continue to fall, since initiatives may no longer appear on the primary ballot.”
Like DiCamillo, McGhee and other observers, Allan Hoffenblum, publisher of California’s Target Book, which handicaps legislative races, is predicting low turnout.
“If you’re a Democrat in a safe Democratic seat that doesn’t have any kind of campaign going on and no ballot props, I don’t see anything there to motivate you to vote,” Hoffenblum said.
But he said local races could boost turnout in isolated areas, in districts that candidates have saturated with ads. Intriguing contests include congressional races in the Los Angeles, San Jose and Sacramento areas.
In and around Downieville, the most palpable concern is not about anything on the ballot, but the prospect of reduced hours at the local clinic. Ask about the upcoming election and you’ll get an earful about that, instead.
Still, residents have no patience for Californians who skip elections – even boring ones.
“You’ve got to be part of the process or shut up,” Bob Latta, who owns a bed-and-breakfast in Sierra City, said over pancakes at the Coyoteville Cafe. “At least we’re showing that we believe in the democratic process.”
There are contested races for sheriff and two supervisor seats in Sierra County. In addition, Latta said, “Van’s on the ballot.”
Van Maddox, the county auditor, treasurer and tax collector, was seated across the room from Latta. Interesting race?
“Unopposed,” Latta said.
Maddox looked up from his coffee and called back, “Nobody ever runs against the auditor.”