Nonvoters lose their voice in California elections

David Mas Masumoto
David Mas Masumoto

In the midst of this crazy presidential primary and controversial state ballot propositions headed for the November ballot, I predict many of us will be forgotten. We will be ignored because so few of us vote. If we don’t vote, we become part of the lost California.

Two major characteristics define us in California: political geography and ethnicity. Many people who live in the San Joaquin Valley don’t go to the polls and don’t engage in the political process. Latinos make up the majority of nonvoters, and they are marginalized politically.

Consider the voting map of California. If you look at the 2014 statewide election, many of the counties with the lowest turnout of eligible voters were in the Valley – Tulare County, 24 percent; Kern County, 28 percent; Merced County, 25 percent; Fresno County, 28 percent; Kings County, 29 percent.

To be fair, the state average turnout was low, with only 31 percent of eligible voters participating. The nationwide midterm election of 2014 was one of the lowest levels since 1942; only 37 percent voted.

Even though Latinos make up 36 percent of the state’s population, they account for only 18 percent of likely voters, according to a recent report by the Public Policy Institute of California. (Disclosure: I am on the PPIC board.) Whites, who make up 42 percent of the state’s population, account for 60 percent of likely voters. The report summarizes that our state is divided into the haves and the have-nots: those who participate in elections vs. those who are not counted.

As the study points out, the haves who frequently vote tend to be older, have attended college and be middle class. Nonvoters are younger than age 45, primarily renters and not homeowners, and are poor.

The two see elections through different lenses. For example, school construction projects are overwhelmingly favored by nonvoters. Yet only 53 percent of those who vote favor such bonds. Since school bonds require 55 percent approval to pass, support from voters falls short. Ironically, those who may use public schools the most, those who are younger with families, are not voting in an election directly affecting their families.

We live in a two-tier political world. One camp has distinct opinions on the role of government, social service programs and ballot initiatives. The other remains disconnected with different views of poverty and inequality that may be ignored by elected representatives.

My neighbors in the San Joaquin Valley may complain about government, but until they vote, their voice will not be heard. Latinos, until they vote, may remain invisible. Both groups are disenfranchised, lost and underrepresented.

I don’t know the exact reason for this lack of participation. Poverty drives many attitudes, poor people may not see the value of voting; their dire conditions may prevent them from taking the time to engage.

Many Latinos may have a distrust in government and lack confidence in the political process. They may feel dismissed by the process and become uninterested.

The large population of documented and undocumented are noncitizens and until they pass citizenship tests, won’t be able to participate in elections to determine who represents their interests.

The poorest regions of state have the least amount of political impact and often are neglected. Fundamental problems of little education and declining job opportunities fester as the economic gap between the haves and the have-nots continues to grow.

I live in the lost California with Latino neighbors. Our political geography defines our future as bleak and devalued. I sometimes fear that cynicism has been planted and raises the question: Do we want to be found? Are we a sleeping giant who will awaken? Or do some want us to remain asleep, as the haves continue the status quo with political rule over the have-nots?

David Mas Masumoto is an organic farmer near Fresno and award-winning author of books, including “Epitaph for a Peach.” Contact him at masmasumoto@gmail.com.