06/18/2014 by Alexandra Bjerg
Survey Says: Californians concerned by low voter turnout, unsure of solution
(photo: D. Bjorn/Flickr)
Two weeks ago California held a statewide primary election. Didn’t know? Initial vote tallies indicate you’re far from alone. It appears that three-quarters of Californians also missed the memo. Fewer than one in four registered voters bothered to cast a ballot on June 3rd, putting California on track to set a record low for turnout in a statewide primary once all votes are tallied.
The primary results have left many in political circles scratching their heads trying to answer one question: Why did 13.3 million registered voters sit out the election? Many theories and solutions have been proposed in the wake of the election, but given the general lack of consensus, California Forward asked its email subscribers to weigh in.
Nearly 1,000 Californians completed our brief survey, which is 1,000 more people than the total number of voters that showed up to a Rohnert Park polling place. Low turnout is bad enough, but zero in an entire day in Rohnert Park? Wow.
Respondents, 89 percent to be exact, overwhelmingly agreed that low turnout is cause for concern. However, as with the press and election administrators, opinions varied greatly as to what might be depressing turnout, clearly demonstrating a long-held belief that there is no silver bullet in election reform.
When asked why millions of Californians aren’t voting, 91 percent agreed that people think “their vote doesn’t matter.” Three-quarters attributed lower participation to an uneven electoral playing field tilted toward special interests. According to the poll, just one in five respondents believe that the constant election cycle may be to blame, which is particularly interesting given many cities are considering shifting their election calendar to consolidate elections in an effort to boost turnout.
The poll finds that Californians get election information from a variety of sources. The Secretary of State’s Official Voter Information Guide was ranked the most popular and trustworthy. Among those polled, 28 percent use it as their primary source of voting information and 71 percent trust the information it contains. However, a majority of respondents said providing that information in plain language is “very important.” Overall, the poll results reveal Californians are less likely to trust partisan sources including political advertising and business or labor groups.
But how can California get more voters to the polls? Seven in 10 respondents believe leveling the electoral playing field through public financing of campaigns is important for boosting turnout. And while the number of people pointing to vote-by-mail only elections as a solution, our poll finds California isn’t ready to follow in the footsteps of Washington and Oregon. Respondents were evenly split on the issue of switching to all-mail elections. Despite even lower turnout among young adults, the survey reveals that allowing future eligible voter to pre-register as early as 16 years old isn’t a top priority. Of those polled, only 46 percent rated the reform as important.
The takeaway? Californians agree that low voter participation is a problem without a quick fix. The survey results show that a number of reforms are required to increase voter participation, but it's unclear which. Both Sen. Alex Padilla and Pete Peterson have pledged to use the full reach of the Secratary of State's office to address critical issues facing the state should they win in November. Let's hope voter turnout is at the top of their list because if one thing is clear, a unifying voice with statewide clout in the election arena is needed to move the needle.