Dan Walters

Opinion: Record low voter turnout looms in California

"I Voted" stickers sit on a ballot box at El Dorado Hills Fire Department Station 85 November 8, 2005.
"I Voted" stickers sit on a ballot box at El Dorado Hills Fire Department Station 85 November 8, 2005. Sacramento Bee Staff Photo

More than 24 million of California’s 38 million residents are legally eligible to vote this year – that is, they are 18 years or older and U.S. citizens.

Only about three-quarters of the eligible – 18 million or so – actually will be registered to vote, and it would be very surprising if 9 million will have cast ballots by the time voting closes on Nov. 4. In fact, it easily could be under 8 million.

Or to put it another way, California, which set a record for low participation in June’s primary election, will likely set another low mark for a general election in November.

California’s voter turnout has been eroding for decades, but a unique set of factors this year will likely push it down even lower than usual.

Voter turnout for nonpresidential elections is always lower than it is during the quadrennial exercise of choosing a president.

Six years ago, as Barack Obama was being elected, 13.7 million Californians, nearly 80 percent of registered voters, cast ballots. Two years ago, as he was being re-elected, turnout topped 72 percent.

Were this an ordinary off-year election, we might expect turnout to drop to under 60 percent of registered voters, such as the 58.59 percent recorded four years ago, when Jerry Brown was being elected governor.

But 2010 was a much different election from 2014, when Brown is seeking a historic fourth term as governor. In 2010, he and rival Meg Whitman were spending tens of millions of dollars on their contest, but this year he’s spending very little of his sizable campaign treasury, while Republican Neel Kashkari has almost nothing to spend.

Four years ago, California was also having an election for a U.S. Senate seat, pitting Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer against challenger Carly Fiorina. There’s no Senate election this year which, history indicates, will shave something between 5 and 10 percentage points off turnout.

Obama’s popularity has diminished sharply in the last two years, and while he frequently visits California to raise campaign money to be spent elsewhere, he’s no longer a big voter draw.

A couple of dozen legislative and congressional races pitting members of the same party against one another may also dampen turnout.

Finally, there are no high-octane ballot measures that generate big-bucks ad campaigns and jump-start political interest.

The lowest nonpresidential, nonspecial general election turnout of the past century – 50.6 percent of registered voters – occurred in 2002, when an unpopular Gov. Gray Davis barely won re-election (he was recalled a year later) and there was no Senate race.

Given the turnout-killing factors this year, under 50 percent is virtually certain, and it could be 45 percent or even lower – a downer for Democrats as they try to avoid losses in close congressional and legislative races.

Call The Bee’s Dan Walters, (916) 321-1195. Back columns, www.sacbee.com/walters. Follow him on Twitter @WaltersBee.

  Comments