Yesterday California held a statewide primary, and it was a real sleeper of an election. While there were a number of contested legislative and congressional primaries going on around the state, and also a number of hotly contested local races, overall this election lacked excitement and garnered little media coverage.
And the turnout numbers show it. Currently the Secretary of State's web site shows a turnout of about 3.5 million voters. While that number will creep up as late vote-by-mail ballots are verified and counted, it probably won't go past 4 million. That's a huge decline compared to the February presidential primary, when presidential candidates were on the ballot and nine million California voters cast ballots.
The June 3 primary will likely set a record low turnout for California. The last time California bifurcated its primary was in 1940 (thanks to KQED's John Myers for pointing this out) and in that year, the second primary, held in August saw a turnout of 45 percent of eligible voters. Yesterday's turnout is likely to be 16 or 17 percent of the state's eligible voters, and in the low twenties for registered voters.
The absence of presidential candidates, the presence of merely two statewide propositions, and the increasingly nonpartisan nature of California's voting public can all be considered causes of this poor turnout. The percentage of the state's registered voters who are registered as nonpartisan, "Decline to State" has doubled since 1992 and is now almost 20 percent of registered voters. When it comes to selecting party candidates for the general election ballot, these voters literally do not have a dog in the fight. Sure they can cross over, but they've chosen to be nonpartisan for a reason - presumably because they are not engaged in partisan politics.
And then of course there is that problem of voter fatigue, the theory that we are asking voters to come out and vote too often. This may have been a factor, but I think that the absence of any hotly contested "top of the ticket" race or any "water cooler" initiatives that get people talking were most likely the cause for yesterday's poor showing.
Given the way the November ballot is shaping up, with the Presidential contest on the ballot (and reports that John McCain is planning to wage a competitive campaign for California's votes) along with eight initiatives already qualified (including another attempt to ban gay marriage) it's a safe bet that turnout will soar again come November.