Dan Walters

Dan Walters: California’s low voter turnout a big puzzle

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

California’s voter turnout has been drifting downward for decades, finally reaching a record-low level in 2014.

Scarcely a quarter of California’s registered voters, and just 18.44 percent of its potentially eligible voters, cast ballots in 2014’s June primary. Merely 7.5 million Californians, 42.2 percent of those registered and 30.9 percent of those eligible, voted in the November election.

This decline has occurred even though the Legislature has made it increasingly easy to register and vote, including an expanded vote-by-mail system.

Clearly, it represents one manifestation of California’s evolution into a cultural stew, lacking cohesion or consensus. Clearly, too, it has something to do with a sense of disconnect among many Californians, that politics exists in another dimension, is dominated by moneyed interests and has little relevance to their lives.

Whatever its origins, declining participation in the electoral process has consequences.

It makes those who do vote – the state’s better educated, more affluent and older residents – the centers of attention by office seekers and undermines the legitimacy of those who win office.

While turnout for statewide elections has declined sharply over the years, it’s even more evident at the local level, where single-digit participation is not uncommon.

It’s a big puzzle, and no legislative session would be complete without at least one new nostrum to arrest the decline.

Last year, the Legislature passed and Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill aimed at increasing local election turnout by forcing local governments and school districts with particularly abysmal participation to merge their elections with statewide voting.

Senate Bill 415 would, in effect, extend to California’s other local governments what voters in Los Angeles decreed earlier in 2015. Los Angeles voters passed a charter amendment requiring city elections to be held when the entire state is voting for governor or president.

They responded to an extremely low turnout for its 2013 mayoral election, which saw Eric Garcetti winning the city’s highest office with backing from just 12.4 percent of its registered voters and less than 10 percent of eligible voters.

SB 415 is likely to have the desired effect of increasing turnout for local government elections, a new study of city election patterns in California indicates.

The study by Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research gathered data on 1,062 mayoral elections in California between 1995 and 2014 and found that consistently, turnout was much higher for those that had been merged with statewide general elections than in those disconnected from general elections.

Mayoral elections in presidential election years averaged 39.6 percent turnout and those in nonpresidential general election years averaged 28.5 percent, while those held “off-cycle,” mostly in odd-numbered years, had the lowest average, just 17.5 percent.

Civil rights groups believe that merging local elections with statewide voting will increase participation by the state’s poorer, less educated, nonwhite residents. Now we’ll see.

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