Thursday, November 6, 2014

California's record low turnout

It's so disappointing when you put on a big event and folks don't show up.

That's how I expect a lot of registrars and poll workers felt after Tuesday's election. We'll find out later today how many ballots remain to be counted. The Field Poll projected 8.2 million Californians would vote.

That's a lot, but compared to how many are registered and eligible, it's a smaller share of the number who participated the last time. And the time before that.

Why is participation on the decline? I offered some answers to that question yesterday to Jason Hoppin, a reporter from the Monterey Herald who discovered his county's turnout had dropped by double digits. Here's an excerpt from his story today: 
Brown's bid for an unprecedented fourth term, the 2014 ballot was left without a marquee matchup to drive midterm turnout: voter participation will likely settle in the mid-40s, an unprecedented low. 
"I wish I knew. More and more people are bringing their ballots at the last minute to the polls, that's one of the things that happening. But the low turnout, I don't (know)," Monterey County Registrar of Voters Claudio Valenzuela said. "Midterms are different." 
The problem is not unique to Monterey County: turnout was low across the state. Kim Alexander, president of the California Voter Foundation, outlined several factors she believes are pushing the numbers down, including declining home ownership, long ballots, less partisanship — a quarter of the state's voters no longer align themselves with a political party — and California's top-two primary system, which often pushes minor-party candidates off the general election ballot. 
Alexander also cited a rise in negative campaigning and the influence of fundraising, with well-heeled candidates hiring professional advisers to target campaigns at likely voters, leaving infrequent voters out of the loop. 
"We have a really skewed system where some people receive way more information than they need, and other voters, who really need it, receive absolutely none," Alexander said. 
Brown's shoo-in campaign was also a factor, she added. The governor put little effort into his re-election bid, which did nothing to stir interest in the race. 
"Every ballot needs a loss leader. Every ballot needs something that's going to draw people out, and we didn't have that on this ballot," Alexander said. 
Furthermore, 70 percent of Monterey County now gets a mail ballot. Stunningly, in a county of 415,000 people and 165,000 eligible voters, just 15,000 people went to a polling place on Election Day.  
Alexander said mail ballots can contribute to turnout problems. Some voters lose ballots without realizing they can request another, or don't know they can drop the ballot off on Election Day. In addition, 3 percent of the mail ballots statewide weren't counted in the June primary, due to a number of factors. 
"That's a higher error rate than the hanging chads of the 2000 presidential contest in Florida," Alexander said, adding the state needs to help fund local mail ballot programs.  
"We need a wholesale review of the program, because you've got a lot of ballots out there that are not connecting with voters," she added. 

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