California’s election may set record for apathy

Early morning voter Pamela Morgan casts her ballot in the statewide general election at the polling location in Natomas Pacific Pathways Prep school before taking her son Jacob Morgan, 7, to school on Tuesday, Nov. 4, 2014.
Early morning voter Pamela Morgan casts her ballot in the statewide general election at the polling location in Natomas Pacific Pathways Prep school before taking her son Jacob Morgan, 7, to school on Tuesday, Nov. 4, 2014. Sacramento Bee

California voter turnout will likely sink to just 46 percent on Tuesday, a new record for apathy in a statewide general election, according to Field Poll estimates.

The absence of competitive statewide contests combined with a dearth of compelling ballot propositions should produce the least attended general election in the state’s modern era, replacing the previous low of 50.6 percent in 2002, when incumbent Democratic Gov. Gray Davis held off Republican Bill Simon.

“It’s going to be a record low, and by quite some margin,” said Mark DiCamillo, director of the poll. “This is really a sad news story for the state.”

Released on Monday, the survey anticipates 8.2 million of the state’s nearly 18 million registered voters will cast a ballot. That means less than 34 percent of the state’s 24.3 million adults who are eligible to register will cast ballots, again demonstrating that Californians are even less engaged in nonpresidential elections.

Field estimates the voters this fall will generally be older, less diverse and more conservative. A healthy majority, 60 percent, will cast their vote using a mail ballot, up from 51.2 percent in the presidential election of 2012.

The top-of-the-ticket contest this fall is the re-election effort of Gov. Jerry Brown, the 76-year-old Democrat seeking an unprecedented fourth term against underfunded Republican challenger Neel Kashkari. Brown has maintained double-digit poll leads throughout the year.

Voters will also decide a $7.5 billion water bond in Proposition 1 and a separate effort to strengthen the state’s rainy-day fund in Proposition 2. Other ballot offerings center on regulating health insurance rates (Proposition 45), raising the limit in medical malpractice cases and testing doctors for drugs and alcohol (Proposition 46), reducing certain crimes to misdemeanors from felonies (Proposition 47) and a referendum on two tribal gaming compacts brokered by Brown (Proposition 48).

While ballot measures have inspired voters in the past – tax-cutting Proposition 13 in 1978, for instance – the “things that would normally drive turnout (are) just not there” now, said Eric McGhee, a research fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California.

Linda Vasquez, 72, of Sacramento said her general lack of interest in the state Capitol and beyond drove her decision to not register. Vasquez, who said she raised five children and has 17 grandchildren to occupy her energy, said her only concern related to the ballot was Brown’s plan to construct twin water-diverting tunnels through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. “I’m against (sending) our water to L.A.” she said.

Asked why that wasn’t reason to register and vote, Vasquez said, “I have never really been into it.”

Jesse Rodriguez, a 24-year-old from Elk Grove, said he wasn’t particularly moved by any of the issues but nonetheless is committed to voting in every election. Rodriguez, a Republican who participated in the poll, said the toughest decisions for him may be deciding between two Democratic legislative candidates. Still, the restaurant-industry employee said he doesn’t like skipping out on contests so he studies their records and their list of endorsements.

He described the approach as “just doing my civil duty.”

The more people make predictions of low voter turnout the more likely it is that infrequent voters may sit it out, said Kim Alexander, founder and president of the California Voter Foundation in Sacramento. Those who tend to vote in every election also are more prized by campaigns and tend to get more attention – brochures in the mailbox and in-person visits from the candidates, she said. “It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

The survey found that while registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by 15 percentage points, their advantage among likely voters will fall to 9 points. Voters aged 50 and older, who make up nearly 50 percent of the statewide voter roll, will represent nearly 60 percent of the electorate this year. Similarly, white voters, who account for 60 percent of the total, will make up 70 percent of the voters. Latinos and Los Angeles County residents will be underrepresented in today’s final tally.

The makeup of the electorate could affect several down-ticket races for Congress and the state Legislature, where Democrats are campaigning to retain a handful of seats and again win a supermajority in the statehouse.

Steven Collins, a 19-year-old sophomore at UC Davis, said he voted only for governor and the propositions. Aside from watching the gubernatorial debate, which competed with the NFL season opener, Collins said last week that he finds it “easier to look into a proposition than the candidates.”

“I'll vote every single time,” said Collins, who did not provide his party affiliation. But on races he was not familiar with, he said, “I felt more comfortable not voting.”

Call Christopher Cadelago, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 326-5538. Follow him on Twitter @ccadelago. Alexei Koseff of The Bee Capitol Bureau contributed to this report.

Related stories from Sacramento Bee