California’s record-low voter turnout stirs anxieties

“I Voted” stickers sit on a ballot box waiting to be handed out to voters at the polling location at El Dorado Hills Fire Department Station 85 on November 8, 2005.
“I Voted” stickers sit on a ballot box waiting to be handed out to voters at the polling location at El Dorado Hills Fire Department Station 85 on November 8, 2005. Sacramento Bee Staff Photo

All the pieces were in place before last month’s general election to set a new low for voter turnout in California, from scant competition in top statewide races to the shortage of titillating ballot propositions.

Mission accomplished.

Though three small counties have yet to report, voter turnout in the midterm election stood Monday at just 42.2 percent, and isn’t expected to change significantly. That will obliterate the state’s modern-era record for voter apathy of 50.6 percent in 2002, when Gov. Gray Davis cruised past Republican Bill Simon.

“I wasn’t surprised that we broke the record,” said Mindy Romero, director of the California Civic Engagement Project at UC Davis. “I was surprised, and I am very concerned, that we actually smashed it.”

Elections experts had anticipated a turnout of roughly 46 percent, with the Field Poll estimating 8.2 million of the state’s nearly 18 million registered voters would cast a ballot in the Nov. 4 election. The actual number of voters has reached just over 7.5 million, with final figures to be certified by Dec. 12.

Abysmal participation is raising fresh concerns about whether this was merely an unusual year or the quickening of a downward trend. Nationally, early projections show turnout at its lowest point in any election cycle since World War II, according to the United States Election Project.

Experts cite a range of components that could be contributing to low turnout: changing demographics, shifting party affiliation, declining homeownership and growing poverty levels. In the June primary, just 25.2 percent of registered voters participated in California.

Secretary of State-elect Alex Padilla, whose job it will be to oversee state elections, called the fall results “a reminder that we have our work cut out for us.”

In his home county of Los Angeles, for example, turnout was just 31 percent of registered voters. Some legislative and congressional candidates there won seats despite drawing support from only a small slice of the district’s residents.

“Every county is different,” Padilla said. “You still have those counties where you have 70 percent turnout. And then you have L.A. County. It’s a shame.”

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Even so, turnout among registered voters tells just half the story, said Eric McGhee, a research fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California.

In a post-election analysis, McGhee wrote that the figure effectively ignores all of the likely residents who were eligible to vote but didn’t register. Turnout among eligible voters was just 31 percent – a full 17 points behind the average for midterm elections since 1922, he wrote.

California’s turnout in midterms has been on a downward march since the mid-1950s. Turnout has stabilized and even climbed a bit, however, in recent presidential elections. In 2012, turnout exceeded 72 percent; and in 2008, during President Barack Obama’s first run for the office, it nearly hit 80 percent.

“This is not just a general disaffection with government that prevents people from participating,” McGhee said in an interview. “The problem is mostly midterms.”

Paul Mitchell, the vice president of Political Data Inc., likened the difference in voters’ views on presidential and midterm elections to the difference between watching the Super Bowl and following every regular-season football game.

“You still have decent turnout in big presidential elections (because) these are big cultural events, and voters want to feel a sense of participation,” he said. “You want to be at a party eating potato chips, but you’re not interested in all of the machinations that it took (the teams) to get there.”

In 2012, Mitchell looked at those aged 22 to 30 who voted in the 2008 presidential race. It turned out that just 27 percent of them had voted in the intervening, nonpresidential elections.

“It’s kind of like voters are saying, ‘I am going to vote when the Black Eyed Peas tell me to,’” Mitchell said.

At a recent forum in Sacramento, PPIC President Mark Baldassare elaborated on his concerns about poor participation in future gubernatorial elections.

Baldassare said the apathy could be intensified by a pair of recently enacted state laws that moved initiatives off the primary ballot and made it easier for proponents to amend and withdraw measures before they go before voters.

“In other words,” he said, “tinkering with the citizens’ initiative process may unintentionally produce new historic lows in voter turnout.”

Voter advocates and lawmakers have pushed over the years to expand access to the ballot box. Two years ago, officials here enabled online voter registration, and they are preparing to institute same-day voter registration in about two years. New legislation will allow mail ballots postmarked by Election Day to count, meaning votes could continue to trickle in up to the weekend after the election.

Given the massive popularity of voting by mail, some county elections officials are now pushing for the state to do away with traditional polling places. If all voters received a mail ballot, they argue, the odds of their participation would increase.

Reformers view low turnout as a threat to democracy, and some worry that it could get worse.

So-called “low-information, low excitement” elections disproportionally affect Democratic constituencies – single women, young people, people of color and lower-income groups, Romero said.

They “are growing, and as they become a larger proportion of the electorate, if they don’t get the support they need, or the system doesn’t adjust, it looks like it could have an impact on turnout rates,” she said. “The electoral system will have to figure out better ways of mobilizing and engaging … folks by pulling them into the electorate.”

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

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