There has been a lot of talk about the low voter turnout in California’s Tuesday primary. Before the election, officials and pundits speculated we might see a record low turnout. After the election, lots of people are shaking their heads and bemoaning voter apathy in our state.
What are the reasons? Many have noted the fact that this is not a presidential election year, and that there was a lack of competition in the race for governor and no citizen initiatives on the ballot to spark the public’s interest.
There are other factors to consider as well. First, let’s look at history. Californians have never shown much interest in participating in primaries. Only once in the last 100 years (1938) have more than half of eligible Californians participated in a primary election.
Turnout among registered voters has also dropped dramatically, peaking in 1976 at 73 percent and sliding down ever since. There have been a few high points since then, when we moved our presidential primary to an earlier date to give Californians more say. In March 2000, 54 percent of registered voters participated, and in February 2008, 58 percent participated. But overall, primary turnout, especially in nonpresidential elections, has hovered around 30 or 40 percent.
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One explanation is the steep decline in party affiliation and dramatic rise in the number of independent voters. In 1990, 89 percent of the state’s registered voters were affiliated with either the Democratic or the Republican parties while 9 percent were registered as independents and 2 percent with minor parties.
Today, 72 percent of California’s voters affiliate with the two major parties, while 21 percent are independents and 7 percent are with minor parties. While under the top-two primary election system, independents now have a say in whittling down the choices for November, it doesn’t change the fact that until very recently, primaries were intended for parties to select their nominees for the general election. With a growing percentage of California voters choosing to affiliate with neither of the major parties, it should come as no surprise that participation in primaries is dropping.
Another reason why many people are sitting out elections is that no one is asking for their vote. Political campaigns are extremely sophisticated in micro-targeting their communications only to those voters most likely to vote, and ignoring everyone else.
California’s decline in homeownership rates and relatively low rates of homeownership compared to other states may also be a factor. Homeowners vote in higher rates than renters for several reasons. First, as property-tax payers, they have a greater stake in government decisions. Second, they are likely to be wealthier than the general public and feel a greater need to protect their interests. And, unlike renters, they stay put, and so are more likely to become familiar with their political districts and elected officials.
According to the U.S. census, California’s homeownership rate dropped from 60 percent in 2005 to 56 percent in 2010, which is nearly the same percentage of eligible Californians who voted in the 2012 general election. Other states’ turnout rates similarly match up. Minnesota’s 76 percent turnout rate in 2012 was the highest in the nation, and that state has a 73 percent homeownership rate. New York’s turnout was 54 percent, with homeownership at 55 percent.
Another contributing factor is a lack of funding. Since 2011, Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature have withheld money owed to counties to pay for election programs mandated by the state, such as vote by mail. As a result, counties are forced to do more with less, even as the number of eligible and registered voters in California constantly expands. A reduction in state funding can result in reduced election services, such as early voting and voter outreach programs.
And lastly, we have the media’s constant dwelling on the likely low turnout rate leading up to election day. This narrative may well have helped suppress turnout. Occasional voters are highly influenced to vote depending on what others around them are doing, particularly their friends and family. Repeated messages about low voter turnout do little to encourage participation and may in fact contribute to the problem.