Joyce Terhaar

From the Executive Editor: Little appetite for a civic duty?

Joyce Terhaar
Joyce Terhaar

We tweeted the results, posted them live online, made them available by smartphone, computer and the newspaper.

Even before election day, the newsroom published an online and print voters guide, and the editorial board offered endorsements of candidates.

It's all part of The Bee's commitment to civic literacy. As long as we all want to live in a democracy – I'll take a risk here and assume you do – the quality of our government and even our lives will be affected by our votes.

Yet turnout in Tuesday's primary election was anemic at best, certainly an indifferent showing compared with just four years ago.

The Field Poll's prediction was spot-on for Sacramento's expected final tally: About 35 percent of those registered actually voted. Once final votes are counted, it's expected that El Dorado and Placer counties will reach about 46 percent, and Yolo County about 40 percent.

Why is that?

I know after I filled out my ballot I felt a bit let down – not many races and not much in the way of credible challengers to incumbents.

Propositions 28 and 29 were more of a draw, but let's face it, an adjustment in term limits and a cigarette tax don't draw voters the way a hotly contested local or presidential race do.

The Bee's Amy Chance, senior editor for politics, attributed low turnout to "structural choices" that made the election less appealing to voters. Scheduling the primary in June meant the Republican presidential contest already was over, with Mitt Romney the presumptive victor. The decision to delay most ballot measures until November also minimized voter decisions.

Yet "the bottom line is we do our job whether the election is a sexy one or not," she said. "Sometimes it's the races that aren't the top-of-the-ticket races (that are) where people need the most help in making choices."

The Twin Rivers Unified School District election is a good example. The district is mired in distrust and controversy. Coverage by Bee reporter Melody Gutierrez prior to the election revealed plenty for voters to chew on – that current trustee Cortez Quinn borrowed money from a district employee in apparent violation of state law, that candidate Michael Baker's educational claims on his résumé cannot be confirmed, that candidate John Berchielli has a lengthy criminal record. All of this is relevant information for voters, which the candidates, not surprisingly, were keeping quiet.

Recent research from the Pew Research Center study "Trends in American Values: 1987-2012" indicates that Americans are more interested and engaged than Tuesday's voting implies.

The study made news because it found that American values and beliefs "are more polarized along partisan lines than at any point in the last 25 years." Californians certainly have watched that extreme partisanship – in the form of protracted stalemates over budget issues – long before it reached the national stage during President Barack Obama's tenure.

Yet buried in the details of the report are interesting suggestions that democracy is alive and well despite the bitter politicking. These findings, and The Bee's commitment to civic engagement, explain our emphasis on election coverage.

When asked in April to agree or disagree with the statement "I feel it's my duty as a citizen to always vote," 68 percent completely agreed, compared with 46 percent in May 1987. The numbers are closer if you combine those who completely agree and those who mostly agree – 90 percent this April compared with 85 percent in 1987.

In April, 78 percent of those surveyed said they completely or mostly agree they are interested in following local politics, compared with 70 percent in 1987.

86 percent of those surveyed in April said they completely or mostly agree they are interested in national affairs, compared with 81 percent in 1987.

And though the percentage of people who feel guilty when they don't vote was about the same in April as in 1987 – 67 percent to 66 percent – those surveyed felt more strongly about it now.

So let me make one more assumption here – lots of people in the Sacramento region are feeling guilty this weekend because they didn't take a few minutes to vote.

If you're one of them, you can make it up in November. With a president to elect and an expected multitude of initiatives and runoffs in key local races, I expect you'll find it far more interesting.