Dan Walters

Dan Walters: Democrats seek cure for apathy

Mike Lee marks his ballot while voting in the California Primary on Tuesday, June 3, 2014 in Sacramento, Calif. No divisive ballot initiatives or high-profile races led to low voter turnout.
Mike Lee marks his ballot while voting in the California Primary on Tuesday, June 3, 2014 in Sacramento, Calif. No divisive ballot initiatives or high-profile races led to low voter turnout. AP

California’s Democratic politicians were jolted when voters – especially their voters – largely ignored last year’s elections.

Just 25 percent of the state’s registered voters cast ballots in the June primary and just 42.2 percent voted in November, by far the lowest percentages ever recorded.

The turnout was particularly low in heavily Latino, heavily Democratic Los Angeles County, mirroring what has been happening in local elections. In this year’s Los Angeles city elections, just 8.6 percent of registered voters cast ballots.

Last year’s ultra-low turnouts eroded Democrats’ commanding lead in voter registration and helped Republicans gain in some key legislative contests.

Not surprisingly, therefore, Democratic politicians want to do something about it. They say they want to improve small-d democracy, but there is little doubt they also want to enhance big-D Democratic dominance.

Those few Los Angeles voters last spring approved two ballot measures that would shift future city and school board elections from odd-numbered years to even-numbered years, coinciding with statewide elections.

That probably will boost turnout in the city a bit, but it’s scarcely a cure-all, given very low participation in statewide elections.

For that, Secretary of State Alex Padilla and his fellow Democrats in the Legislature have another remedy, or so they hope. A bill awaiting Gov. Jerry Brown’s signature would make voter registration of citizens over the age of 18 automatic when they interact with the Department of Motor Vehicles.

It’s assumed Brown will sign it, having endorsed universal voter registration in a 1992 speech to the Democratic National Convention.

If he does, election officials believe, it would eventually add 6.6 million new names to the voter rolls, jumping from the current 17.7 million to 24.3 million.

But would it appreciably increase participation? Certainly some of the new registrants would cast ballots, but raising overall registration numbers will likely mean a further decline in turnout percentages, perhaps markedly so.

Registering to vote is not difficult in California, so it has not been a serious impediment to turnout. But many of those already registered have not been voting, so there is more at issue here than a lack of paperwork.

Public Policy Institute of California polling has found that a simple lack of interest in politics, born of a widespread mistrust of government, is the major factor in non-voting, compounded by an unwillingness to devote time to absorb an increasingly complex ballot. And those factors are especially evident among young and/or non-white Californians.

Most of today’s ballots are cast by mail. So would going to all-mail voting, as Oregon has done, raise participation? Perhaps by a little, but if mistrust of and alienation from politics are the major impediments, no systemic changes will make much difference.

If politicians seek causes and cures of this civic malady, maybe they should look in the mirror.

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