This election season, we dared to dream. Could California be a player in the presidential race? Could we turn out voters who rarely show up for primaries, or who never vote at all, matching the high turnout of the 2008 presidential primary?
There were reasons to feel optimistic. To start, we had a slate of candidates who galvanized voters, either out of enthusiasm or contempt. A blitz of national press coverage further raised the stakes and fueled political passions.
But then, the Republican race fizzled to one candidate. And at the last minute, Hillary Clinton was declared the presumptive Democratic nominee, possibly discouraging some Election Day voters.
Meanwhile, many who signed up to vote by mail found the process confusing or discouraging. Voters registered with no party preference or without a qualified political party could not vote for a Republican candidate, but could vote Democratic, American Independent or Libertarian by requesting a crossover ballot.
But according to Political Data Inc., as of June 4, counties reported only about 15 percent of these voters actually did so. Many of the rest were likely disappointed to find no presidential candidates on their ballots and confused about what steps to take next.
Some went to the polls without their mail ballots, leaving them to cast provisional ballots. An unknown number who did bring their mail ballots were made to cast provisional ballots needlessly due to faulty guidance at the polls.
According to the California secretary of state, approximately 700,000 provisional ballots were cast for a variety of reasons. Such confusion could have long-term consequences. Frustrated voters – especially young ones – are less likely to vote in the future.
While the final data are not in, the good news is that last week’s turnout appears higher than it was in the last three primary elections in 2010-14. We likely won’t reach the numbers from the 2008 presidential primary, when Clinton faced off with Barack Obama. That election mobilized nearly 40 percent of eligible voters and 58 percent of those registered to vote. But the numbers this year are good.
Still, the question remains: How to get more Californians engaged in elections?
Overall, primary voter turnout in our state has been low and on the decline. According to the California Civic Engagement Project at the UC Davis Center for Regional Change, only 22 percent of eligible residents voted in 2012. Numbers for voters of color and young people are even lower. In 2012, the eligible turnout was only 11.7 percent for Latinos and 10 percent for Asian Americans. For voters ages 18-24, the figures plunged to 5.2 percent.
These disparities in turnout rates mean political underrepresentation. In 2012, Latinos comprised 27 percent of the state’s eligible voter population, but only 12 percent of those casting primary ballots. Youth made up 14 percent of those eligible to vote, but an abysmal 3.6 percent of all voters.
We need to redefine what we consider a high turnout for our state. An eligible turnout rate of 30 percent, 35 percent or even 40 percent, although “good” for a primary in our state, is not good enough. And the record low 18 percent eligible turnout rate in the 2014 midterm is not acceptable.
We need to change the narrative that primaries aren’t important or exciting. People shape what’s on the fall ballot by voting in primaries. And primary elections are not just important at the state and national level. Local ballot decisions directly determine what happens in our communities.
We shouldn’t be satisfied with only a small and unrepresentative group of Californians making decisions for everyone. It’s not just about the strength of our democracy. Elections have real policy and resource outcomes that affect us all.
Mindy Romero is the director of the California Civic Engagement Project at the UC Davis Center for Regional Change. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.