The Edge: Competitive Edge Blog

Failure to Engage, Act 2

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OK, voter turnout in the June Primary election was bad; well, “terrible” is a more apt description.  In the great state of California a measly 25 percent of voters did their civic duty. And, as the dourer among us have pointed out, that’s just among those registered to vote. Looking at the entire population of adults provides a more accurate gauge of civic engagement.  Of course that picture is even uglier, as only 18 percent of those eligible to vote did so.  But let’s not obsess about the past, because there is so much more to obsess about in the immediate future.

As I’ve stated in previous blog posts, past tends to be prologue in electoral politics. Turnout in California’s Primary elections predicts General election turnout fairly well. Eighty-eight percent of the time you can draw an accurate straight line from primary turnout levels to turnout levels in the general. So it should not be a surprise that November 4 will be a low turnout election, even by mid-term standards. But will this snoozefest set a record for apathy?  I believe it will.

The all-time low in California for a similar election was 2002, when only 51 percent cast ballots. That was the cycle during which incumbent Gray Davis decided it would be beneficial to tear down Los Angeles Mayor Dick Riordan so he could run against the less lustrous Bill Simon, whom he also mercilessly tore down. Davis was right about that, but in the process of savaging the other side, he excited few voters, voter disenchantment soared and turnout plummeted (Davis also sowed the seeds of his own political demise, but that’s another story).


The current election bears at least some resemblance to 2002: an incumbent Governor who does not excite the voters (this time by not campaigning at all) and an underfunded Republican challenger who is widely seen as not having a reasonable chance to win (though is more popular than Simon was). But something else is happening in the body politic because it’s not as if Jerry Brown is running a scorched-earth campaign. Also, the low turnout blues began in the primary, so apathy is not campaign-related this time around.

Some have blamed the new open primary format, in which nothing really gets decided in June. That is probably part of the reason for voter disinterest, but it doesn’t really explain why we’ll see record low turnout next week.  Others have blamed negative campaigning, but that fails to take into account that a) negative attacks have been around a very long time and b) this gubernatorial campaign has been anything but negative. I can’t explain why turnout is about to crater, but I can give you a feel for how bad it will get.

If current trends continue, November’s statewide voter turnout will hit 36 percent. If you’re scoring at home, that’s 15 percent below the old record.

Jurisdictions will vary and some will look hyper-engaged by comparison. In the hotly – oh, so hotly – contested 52nd Congressional District, about half the registered voters will participate. Parenthetically, that kills the idea that negative campaigns kill voter turnout. If you’re a San Diegan you’re probably focused on the sixth City Council District where turnout is likely to hit about 48 percent. These rates of participation are great compared to the state, but consider that turnout levels four years ago in these areas were well above 60 percent. In Chula Vista, a large San Diego suburb where a Mayor’s race is being decided, less than a third of the voters will cast a ballot. And the beat goes on.

As an optimist, I’m hoping voters rally to change these dismal numbers. But as a realist, I can at least look on the bright side: having fewer ballots to count means we’ll know the winners and losers sooner.

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