What are voters thinking about as Tuesday approaches? The last thing on most people’s minds is the midterm election, and that’s a serious problem for our state.
Few Californians are talking about the election or seem to care much about the choices on the ballot. Likely voters are experiencing an “enthusiasm gap,” according to the Public Policy Institute of California. Compared with the last elections for governor and president, Tuesday’s election has generated even less enthusiasm for making it to the polls.
Voter turnout is typically low in midterm elections – 10 to 15 percentage points lower than in presidential elections. In 2010, the state’s last midterm general election, only 43.7 percent of eligible voters cast ballots. For voters of color and young voters, ages 18-24, eligible turnout was even lower. Only 28 percent of Latinos, 24 percent of Asian Americans and 18.5 percent of eligible youths turned out to vote.
This election has fewer draws than the 2010 election. To start, there are not many factors to motivate voters. Less suspense means fewer voters turn out. Based on pre-election polling, the election to choose California’s next governor may strike many as a foregone conclusion. There is no Meg Whitman-like money pouring in. There is no statewide Senate race and no high-profile ballot initiatives. Of course, there are many important local issues to be decided. But it’s the statewide issues that bring voters out on a large scale.
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The big question for Tuesday is not: Will turnout be low? But rather: Just how low will it be? We just might set a record low for a general election. The current record low eligible turnout occurred in 2002 with 36 percent of eligible voters going to the polls.
This is not to suggest we give up and accept low turnout. The risk of hitting a new voting low should be a rallying cry for change. Low turnout diminishes our voices as citizens and deprives policymakers of input needed to make sound and fair decisions on the critical issues.
As it stands, those most likely to vote in this election are the more educated, wealthier and older Californians. While the voices of these voters are important, they don’t represent the full needs and experiences of state residents as a whole.
So what can you do? If you’re not already registered to vote, it’s too late to cast a ballot in this election. Same-day voter registration won’t be implemented until 2016.
About the only thing that works for increasing turnout at this late hour is in-person contact. Research shows that the best way to get voters to the polls is to reach out to them directly. Campaigns and parties know this. That’s why they send mailers and call us at home.
Peer and family connection is a powerful motivator for voting. If our peers are voting, we often feel compelled to vote. If someone we know reaches out to us about the issues, we are much more likely to feel that voting is relevant to our lives. And if our kids see us voting, they will be more likely to vote themselves.
So vote – and then mobilize your friends and family to vote. Show them one of the many easy-to-use online voter guides to help inform them about the issues. Bring a neighbor, a friend, especially a young person, to the ballot box.
Turnout of youths is painfully low. At the California Civic Engagement Project at the UC Davis Center for Regional Change, we found that only 3.7 percent of all eligible 18-to-24-year-olds voted in the June primary. For most youths, their parents aren’t voting, and no one is encouraging them to participate.
When you do vote, make sure your ballot counts. Use of vote-by-mail is likely to account for more than 50 percent of ballots tallied. But most voters aren’t aware that their vote-by-mail ballot can be rejected. About 91,000 mail-in ballots went uncounted in June. The California Civic Engagement Project research shows that in the 2012 general election the top three reasons for rejection were:
1. A ballot arrived to a county election office too late.
2. A ballot signature didn’t match the signature on file.
3. The voter forgot to sign his or her ballot envelope.
Youths, non-English-language voters and military voters were more likely to get their ballots rejected.
We need to seriously consider the candidates and ballot measures, including local issues; often they have more impact on our lives. Most of all, we need to take action. Cast your ballot and reach out to those you know who are not likely to vote. You have the ability to increase California’s turnout rate. That would make a positive difference for our democracy.
Mindy Romero is the director of the California Civic Engagement Project at the UC Davis Center for Regional Change.