Frederic J. Brown / AFP / Getty Images

Voter turnout plummeted in California

'We threw an election and nobody came,' said an analyst; only 21.4 percent of those eligible voted in governor's race

Across the country, talk of Tuesday’s midterm elections focused on key GOP victories that clinched its control of both the Senate and the House, and the results would push President Barack Obama to compromise with Republicans.

But in California, a firmly entrenched blue state, there wasn’t much discussion of voting or the elections. Incumbent Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, won re-election to a fourth term even though polls showed that four in 10 voters didn’t even know he was running again. Even fewer voters — about one in five — were able to name his Republican opponent, Neel Kashkari.

The lack of hoopla may be one reason reason why voter turnout plummeted in the Golden State. Among California’s population of eligible voters, just 21.4 percent cast ballots for the gubernatorial race, a 22.6 percent decrease from the 44 percent who did so in the 2010 midterm elections, according to data from the United States Election Project, which is run by University of Florida political science professor and Brookings Institution fellow Michael McDonald. (Tracking what McDonald calls the voting-eligible population leaves out felons and non-citizens, who are ineligible to vote, provided a more accurate picture of who shows up at the polls.)

To slice it a different way, 5.2 million ballots were cast in California on Tuesday, a precipitous drop from the more than 10 million votes cast in the 2010 midterms.

Although midterm election participation tends to be lower than in presidential election years, California’s 21 percent turnout was still drastically lower than the national average of 33.9 percent voters who showed up on Tuesday.

“We threw an election and nobody came,” says Darry Sragow, a veteran Democratic political strategist based in Los Angeles.

Rather than interpret the tepid turnout as excessive satisfaction with the political status quo — just as voters dissatisfied with President George W. Bush turned out in droves to elect Obama in 2008 — the reality is that Californians are frustrated with the current political climate, Sragow says.

Like many voters across the nation, they don’t feel the candidates running for office are discussing issues relevant to their lives. “I think that voters are clinically depressed,” he said. “I mean, they’re in despair. You would assume the despair would turn into anger and that would turn out the vote, but I don’t think they really see choices that mattered a lot.”

“Folks are feeling a sense of disconnection from the political process,” said Mindy Romero, director of the California Civic Engagement Project, a non-partisan research and outreach group at the University of California, Davis. “That’s something that’s always been the case, voter apathy. But we’re thinking this is something that’s on the rise.”

The record low for eligible voter participation in California was in 2002, at 36 percent, she said, so this year may shatter that record, depending on the final calculations. But she pointed out that to focus on apathy is to blame the voter for low turnout. In reality, in elections in which the top ticket — in this case, the governor’s race — lacks controversy and is basically a forgone conclusion, voters may not have received all the competing messaging reminding them to vote.

That certainly was not the case four years ago, when then-Attorney General Brown, who had already served two gubernatorial terms from 1975 to 1983, stepped up to for another go-round as governor. He faced off against Republican and e-Bay CEO Meg Whitman, who spent $160 million of her own money on the race, only to lose. But the dramatic showdown between the man who was once known as Governor Moonbeam and the technology executive who happened to be a political spending machine transfixed voters.

“It was a very loud campaign, and obviously the race at the top of the ticket is always more noisy,” said Peter Schrag, retired editor of The Sacramento Bee newspaper’s editorial page and author of the book "Paradise Lost: California's Experience, America's Future.”

“This time around, there wasn’t much of a race because Brown was a shoo-in, [and] everyone knew he was a shoo-in from the get-go,” said Schrag.

But in less contentious elections like this week's, Romero says the lack of political information being pitched at voters ends up disproportionately affecting populations that are underrepresented at the California polls as it is: Latinos, Asians and young people.

In 2010, just 28.7 percent of eligible Latinos, 24.4 percent of eligible Asians, and 18.5 percent of eligible youth voted in the midterm election, much lower turnouts than the 43.7 percent eligible voter turnout from the general population, Romero said.

“It’s kind of a vicious cycle,” she said. “The voters that always vote, those voters have a lot of experience in getting information that they need to make their decision, they’re getting a lot of information from different sources, and groups that have less of a historical connection to the voting process, they’re impacted more by lack of information out there.”

That, and the array of state and local ballot measures typically offered to voters in California — since 1911, ordinary citizens have been able to introduce new measures to the ballot if they secure enough voter signatures — can be enough to confuse even the most enlightened voter.

“Who is going to know the right person for the water district? It’s just endless,” said Schrag. “We’ve got all this democracy, and maybe as a result, maybe we don’t have a very effective democracy.”

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