Mindy Romero: A tiny fraction of Californians help shape the November debate

Soon, we’ll know whether the low turnout for the Tuesday primary was one for the record books.

But we already know that the people who cast ballots reflect a fraction of who we Californians are. Tuesday’s voters were older, wealthier, better educated and whiter than the population as a whole.

More to the point, Tuesday’s voters’ viewpoints often don’t fully represent the diversity of interests in our state, and that calls into question our democracy.

California turnout consistently ranks in the bottom 20 percent of all states. We participate at the ballot box most when choosing a president, but even in those elections, only half of eligible voters show up.

Voting rates for midterm elections are even lower. Primary turnout is abysmal, at 24.1 percent in 2010. That’s just part of the story. Glaring disparities emerge when we break the data down by age, race and ethnicity.

At the California Civic Engagement Project at the UC Davis Center for Regional Change, our research shows that in the 2010 primary, only 11.3 percent of eligible Latinos and 12.3 percent of eligible Asian Americans cast ballots. Young people, ages 18-23, were worse; only 5.6 percent of them voted.

The most common explanation is that people are apathetic. Voting in primaries isn’t perceived as important or exciting, though it is. Primary elections set the stage for general elections, winnowing the slate of candidates and deciding many local issues and races.

When a majority of voters fail to take part in primaries, decision-making power falls to the minority who do.

In recent years, California policymakers have made some changes to improve turnout by introducing online and same-day voter registration. But for significant change to take place, more needs to be done, especially to address disparities in turnout across groups.

We already know what to do. Widespread mobilization and education are key to improving voter turnout, particularly for underrepresented groups. It’s not that people don’t care. Research tells us they will vote when they are shown how to access the voting process and can see the relevance of the issues to their lives.

Political campaigns and parties already engage aggressively in these efforts with the voters they want to target, people who already are likely to vote. But everyone else is effectively left out.

California doesn’t get the mass voter mobilization that’s reserved for battleground states. And there are few organizations with the resources to undertake wide-scale voter-education and -mobilization drives.

Voter and community-advocacy groups have demanded more action on the part of government and educational institutions to make the electoral process more accessible. Schools, along with county and state elections offices, need to take the lead in educating future and current voters about the voting process. But these calls have yet to be heeded fully by policymakers.

Why the reluctance? Reform isn’t always in the best interest of policymakers. A top concern of elected officials is getting re-elected. They are unlikely to want to change the rules of the game in which they succeeded and hope to win again.

Sometimes, low voter turnout isn’t seen as a bad thing. Low turnout can benefit political interests because support from the voters who actually do participate is likely to be skewed in favor of those same interests. Any effort to change the electoral game ultimately necessitates calculating how that change will affect these interests.

We see this every time election reform is proposed in California. When a bill is submitted or policy suggested to increase voter access and participation, pundits charge that politicians simply line up to support or oppose it based on perceptions of how the policy will affect political positions, whether those perceptions are accurate or not.

We have seen several attempts to expand education and access to the voter-registration process for young adults. Each time, a debate emerges about how an influx of new voters might benefit one political party or another. New voters aren’t always embraced if they bring uncertainty to outcomes.

Voter engagement should not be conducted by partisans who are motivated to mobilize those voters who are likely to vote in their favor. Our educational and civic structures should be mandated and funded to aggressively educate and reach out to all those eligible to vote. We can do better.

All this helps explain why the policy decisions made in California often don’t reflect the values and needs of the majority of its population. A minority of people sign off on all the decision-making in our state.

Are we really OK with this? In Tuesday’s primary, did you help pick the players for the general election ballot in the fall? Or were you content to go with a team picked by someone else? Whether you voted or not, the stage is now set for November.