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Activism is up in California. So why is primary turnout expected to be low?​

How to use the new voting system in Sacramento County

Sacramento County’s new voting system sends ballots through the mail to every registered voter. Here's how you vote after you get your ballot.
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Sacramento County’s new voting system sends ballots through the mail to every registered voter. Here's how you vote after you get your ballot.

Enthusiasm in politics, headed into California's first major election since President Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton in 2016, has soared, with heightened attention on guns, immigration and the economy.

But that may not translate into voters on Election Day.

California voting experts predict only about a third of registered voters will return mail-in ballots and show up in person to vote Tuesday – about the same level as past primaries in nonpresidential election years.

"Young people just aren't turning out in midterms," said Eric McGhee, a research fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California. "I think it'll be better than 2014. That was really bad, but it certainly won't be as high as a presidential election year. ... We have this longer-term trend in California of declining voter turnout in midterm elections."

The last gubernatorial primary, in 2014, was a historic low for California, with about 25 percent of those registered actually casting votes.

On average, though, turnout in gubernatorial primaries has hovered around 33 or 34 percent of registered voters. Paul Mitchell, vice president of the voter data firm Political Data, is projecting turnout at 32 percent in this year's primary.

"There was a lot of thought a year ago that there was going to be significantly higher turnout because of the amazing level of political engagement there is in California right now. … There's lots of interest in protesting and watching the news, but it's about national issues, not who is going to be next insurance commissioner or ... governor.

"This excitement around politics has potential to create really high turnout, but it's a double-edged sword, because it also has the potential to distract Californians from California issues, California candidates and from this governor's race," Mitchell said.

Voters also tend not to weigh in until the main general election match-up, and citizen-initiated measures aren't put on the ballot until November, experts say.

McGhee noted California's unique top-two primary system was designed, in part, to encourage greater participation and competition in primaries, but that hasn't happened, because "most voters are still making choices in their own party." Under the top-two system, the two candidates with the greatest number of votes, regardless of party, advance to the November general election.

"The real fight is going to be in the fall," McGhee said.

Ballot measures this November likely will include proposals to allow stronger rent control in cities, repealing the state's 2017 gas tax increase and upping the voter threshold to raise taxes.

Mindy Romero, founder and director of the California Civic Engagement Project at UC Davis, agreed with projections that turnout would likely track with historical gubernatorial primary trends.

"It's really, really hard to get people interested and paying attention in primaries," Romero said. "There's more money and attention when candidates are duking it out in the general election. Another disappointing element of low turnout in primaries is you end up seeing fewer voters of color, fewer younger voters and fewer low-income voters."

That could change, she said, when voters return for the general election.

"I think some of that momentum we're seeing will translate in November."

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PRIMARY SHOWDOWN: Californians today cast votes on who will succeed Gov. Jerry Brown, who will be the state's next attorney general, insurance commissioner and other statewide officers. Just catching up? Let us help you by guiding you through the major candidates and issues in the races.

MUST READ: The battle for control of the House is being fought largely in California's Central Valley and Orange County, where three Republican-held seats are up for grabs.

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