Commentary

06/05/2014  by Alexandra Bjerg,  by and Christopher Nelson

The Primary Club: Thoughts on California’s startlingly low June voter turnout


This author's lone signature on the voting ledger at an LA polling location, end of day (photo: Christopher Nelson)

Why was voter turnout in the June primary so low?

This is a question anyone who cares a lick about elections in California is asking right now. Pundits, data-miners, reporters…everyone wants to know why statewide turnout on Tuesday (3.7 million) was less than the number of registered voters in Los Angeles County alone (4.8 million). 

Early returns show that a mere 18 percent of registered voters bothered casting a ballot, breaking the record for lowest turnout in a primary. 

“We have hit rock bottom,” said Efrain Escobedo, Governmental and Legislative Affairs Manager for the Los Angeles County Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk. “I think it’s not an abnormality, low voter turnout is the growing normality in California,” Escobedo said.

“Why are we engaging in a race to the bottom?”

Many have posited answers to these questions in the past few days. The holy trinity of low voter turnout explainers has been trotted out time and again in the news: a governor’s race that was decided before it began, no citizen-driven ballot measures and perceived voter contentment.

To find answers, we turn to an unlikely arena that many Californians, old and young, are intimately familiar with: the club scene. Whether it was the legendary Viper Room on the Sunset Strip in the 80s or the venerable Mighty in San Francisco today, most people have been enticed to attend some event somewhere with some band or DJ playing and had to decide if it was worth their time and energy to actually show up.

If, as was the case in yesterday’s election, only one fifth of invited guests showed up to an event, the venue wouldn’t break even, it’d be hemorrhaging money spent on staff and booze. 

So let’s draw some direct parallels here. The musical talent is clearly the candidates for office and their campaigns are the PR agents (volunteers are the roadies??). The promoters are the county registrars. The venue owner is the state government. The patrons are the voters and the media are…well, the media. The campaigns will spread the word, but only to their own candidate’s benefit, as any good artist PR rep would tell you. As such in election land, low propensity voters are out of luck. 

So it stands to reason that the event, primarily, is a joint venture between the promoters and the venue owners, with each equally vested in a successful outcome: a packed house. It is on them to get the word out through their own means and to leverage the media as the most direct gateway to their patrons. 

By this logic, because counties are owed nearly $100 million by the state for complying with state election mandates, registrars lack sufficient funds to cover election basics, including voter outreach. As a result, the media shoulders a greater share of the burden. Just as people read magazines and blogs to find out what they should be listening to and what the hottest bars/clubs at the moment are, election reporting bestows either urgency or apathy in voters’ minds depending on the amount, depth and quality of the coverage.  

Getting them there is half the battle, however, as voters must also be educated when they show up. There’s no better evidence of this than the approximately 289,000 Californians who voted for Leland Yee in the Secretary of State race. When a man under indictment for allegedly soliciting campaign contributions in exchange for brokering an arms deal garners more votes than the former chair of the Fair Political Practices Commission, it signals an alarmingly low level of civic awareness.

While other states are making it harder to vote, California has passed measures making it easier than ever in an effort to engage a broader audience. Even after several years of having to do more with less, counties continue to rollout the red carpet to ensure all voters feel welcome and California’s elections are free, fair, and inclusive. 

Want a vote-by-mail ballot? You got it. Need the voter guide translated into your native language? You’re likely covered as well (if not this cycle, then probably the next one). Despite receiving the VIP treatment, millions of California still aren’t voting.

And where the state and counties can no longer afford to pick up the mantle, outside players who do it purely “for the love of the music” are filling the void. Rock the Vote has been waging war on voter apathy with the monetary might of MTV for decades. MapLight recently teamed up with the League of Women Voters of California Education Fund to revamp Voter’s Edge, a tool aimed at being a one-stop-shopping experience for information on statewide candidates and ballot measures. And the broad coalition of every key player in the state with a vested interest in improving all facets of elections that is the Future of California Elections (of which CA Fwd is a member) meets annually to explore solutions.

So it appears we have come full circle, right back to John Q. Voter. Will he get off the couch on a Tuesday and meander to his polling location? A promoter would tell you that sometimes attendance simply depends on what other events you’re up against on a given night. Elections themselves need to offer a lot more in the minds of voters than a free sticker to recapture widespread interest. 

Voting is a social act. Musical taste and voting habits are often inherited from our parents and heavily influenced by our peers. But a disinvestment in civic education, decline in honest political discussions not fueled by partisanship and overall disenchantment with an electoral process seemingly owned by the highest bidder has made for a decidedly uphill battle in getting the everyday citizen to understand the role of and take pride in being a civically active citizen, even if parents and peers do their part.

One final view of this through the lens of an actual, moneymaking business endeavor reveals a stark truth: if we don’t turn things around soon and reignite interest in the electoral process, politicians will be elected with nothing resembling a mandate; special interests, campaign donors and lobbyists will truly be the loudest voices in the room and our entire democracy could go under.

Categories: Democracy, Elections, Governance Reform

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