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Voter Turnout Will Stink Again – What Else Is New in California?

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Well wouldn’t you know it?  I write a blog post talking about California’s stinky voter turnout and the next day things start picking up.  I’m therefore raising my turnout projection for the state of California to 42%, for San Diego County to 51% and for the City of San Diego to 46%. While most observers would likely characterize these levels of voter participation as sickly, they are big improvements over what we were facing only last week. 

One important caveat for local races:  There will be a sizeable number of people who vote for a Presidential nominee but not on so-called “down ballot” races. Historically, there could be a 5% drop-off to the mayoral vote and a 15% drop-off to an office like city attorney. The reasonable assumption in Tuesday’s election is that the drop off will be larger than usual, especially on the Democrat side where excitement over the nomination is high.


Here we are again. We’re less than a week away from the June primary election and voter turnout will be dreary. The city of San Diego is struggling to break 40%. San Diego County looks only a little better, maybe getting to 45%. But both those jurisdictions are way ahead of the State, which is on track to come in with turnout in the mid-30s. The reality is: more than half your neighbors won’t be voting.

CALet’s blame Donald J. Trump for half the current apathy. He’s a big guy, he can take it. What I’m saying is, had he not been a juggernaut, Republicans in California and San Diego would have a top-of the-ticket reason to get to the polls.  But no, he had to blow Senator Ted Cruz and Governor John Kasich out of Lake Michigan during the Indiana primary and thus we have a GOP nomination yawner.

By contrast, Democrats have a reason to vote and are casting ballots at a pretty good clip. The primary election is looking suspiciously like a presidential general election in one way: partisanship. As of June 1, 17% more Democrats than Republicans have voted in San Diego.  That gap will almost certainly not shrink because the late deciders and those who vote at the polls tend to skew to the left of the ideological spectrum.

All this makes the current electoral playing field nearly as advantageous for Democrats as it was during the vaunted Obama waves of 2008 and 2012. That’s right, for all the complaining we hear about the primary system’s “unfairness,” it’s the Democratic Party that will enjoy a huge advantage this June.

The fact of the matter is that the system is not inherently unfair, it simply reflects the voters’ engagement level which can vary by political party and by circumstance. If Democrats don’t want to participate one cycle and feel they have a reason to participate the next, it’s (still) a free country and they have that right. The same goes for Republicans as they now exercise their God-given right not to vote. Of course, we hope all voters would listen to the better angels of their nature and cast an informed ballot, but the more that government injects itself in the process to artificially increase turnout, the less informed those ballots will be.

Getting back to assigning the rest of the blame for low participation, a weird and uninspiring ballot should take a quarter of the lashings.  When you have a silly open primary system you get a confusing situation where a voter is asked to make a choice between 34 – count ‘em – U.S. Senate candidates. Google “daunting” and I’ll bet it provides a link to California’s awkward primary system.  After two election cycles, it’s not too soon to admit we made a mistake in adopting this scheme.  On top of that, the Legislature decided that statewide ballot initiatives would be decided only in general elections. So, while we are spared from an even lengthier primary ballot, we’ve lost the turnout inducing effects of marijuana legalization and other attention-grabbing measures.

The last quarter of the blame must be shouldered by voters themselves. Look, even if there was a competitive race at the top of the Republican ticket, turnout was never going to break 55%. Lots of voters are just not that into primaries.  For professionals like me — the geeks and nerds that live and breathe politics on a daily basis — it’s hard to understand, but most voters have other things going on.  A month ago it was Janet Jackson’s baby competing for the electorate’s narrow bandwidth. Then it was the death of pop superstar Prince. It’s always going to be something and voters who aren’t reading the papers, monitoring or watching televised debates will take a “wake me up when it’s down to two” attitude.

So get ready for more handwringing over low voter turnout.  It’s a long-term trend that’s being exacerbated by near-term circumstances.

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4 Responses to Voter Turnout Will Stink Again – What Else Is New in California?

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