California primary election turnout headed for record low

Turnout in Tuesday’s primary election is expected to approach just a quarter of registered voters, comfortably eclipsing a 6-year-old record for voter apathy in California.

Election officials are still processing mail-in ballots, but preliminary counts show fewer than 4.5 million voters participated – 25 percent of the 17.7 million who are registered and just 18.5 percent of the 24.1 million who are eligible.

Experts principally blamed the lack of participation on the dearth of citizen ballot initiatives and what most consider a humdrum challenge to incumbent Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown.

“There is, quite frankly, very little sizzle,” said David McCuan, a professor of political science at Sonoma State University. “There is nothing really that surprising about the June primary, and the dismal numbers are just further evidence of the erosion of people away from politics.”

Still, McCuan believes the state’s turnout may have hit bottom.

The emergence of the top-two primary system, which provides no guarantee either major party has a representative on the fall ballot, and a new era of leaders expected to compete for key statewide races in four years will compel politicians of all stripes to make a concerted effort to boost turnout, McCuan said.

“Democrats are going to need to change to maintain their supermajorities and their robustness in the state,” he said. “And Republicans have to find a way to re-engage and be relevant even amongst their primary voters.”

One way to potentially increase voter participation by 3 to 4 percentage points is to allow citizen initiatives back on the primary ballot, he said.

“This is probably something that folks in the Democratic coalition and interest groups are going to want to see in short order,” McCuan said.

While the number of registered voters has increased dramatically over the past few decades, the number of voters casting ballots has remained relatively flat.

The previous low in turnout came six years ago when the state split its primary election and presidential nominating contests. The June 2008 primary, which generated interest from a mere 28.2 percent of registered voters, is considered an anomaly in that it featured no marquee races such as those for president and governor.

In 2010, turnout for the statewide primary was 33.3 percent, which was consistent with gubernatorial primaries over the previous decade.

Mark DiCamillo, director of the Field Poll, said the drop from more than a third of the electorate to about a quarter was notable given that the new primary system allows independent voters to choose any candidate regardless of party.

“Based on this election cycle, it doesn’t seem to have attracted many of those voters to the polls,” he said.

DiCamillo said the election results so far suggest a heavy turnout of Republicans, who trail Democrats in registration by 15 percentage points statewide.

“When all the votes are counted, you may get close to as many Republicans as Democrats,” he said.

Some believe the state’s increasingly nonpartisan nature – 21 percent of voters no longer align with a party – is a factor in decreasing involvement in primaries.

Nearly 72 percent of voters are affiliated with the Democratic or Republican parties, down from 89 percent in 1990, said Kim Alexander, founder and president of the California Voter Foundation in Sacramento.

“Even though we now have an open primary where independents and minor-party voters can vote for major-party candidates, it doesn’t change the fact that historically primaries have been about allowing parties to select their nominees for the general (election),” she said.

She said analysts may be overlooking another factor in the downward shift: the decline of homeownership. People who own houses often have a greater incentive to vote given their interest in taxes, schools and other public services. They also are far less likely to uproot and thus have a better chance of becoming familiar with their political districts and getting to know representatives in local, state and federal offices, Alexander said.

“Part of what we are seeing here is a change in the public as a whole, where fewer and fewer people have access to the California Dream,” she said.

Also a factor is the precision with which candidates can microtarget likely voters and ignore everybody else. Alexander said she alone received 46 glossy mailers while her neighbors without voting records in the area may have received none. Even though the state has experienced chronically low participation rates over the years, the broader trend is that the most likely voters are not demographically representative of its residents.

Alexander said that worries her most.

“Elections are meant to be a tool through which people are able to govern themselves,” she said. “And if you have giant swaths of society opting out of voting and seeing it as something that has nothing to do with them, then they may find other non-civil avenues to create change for themselves. It’s really in everyone’s interest to expand participation and make sure that everybody feels invited and engaged.”

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