Voters streamed to the polls in November, lining up from before dawn until after nightfall, a tableau of involvement that cheered fans of democracy whether or not they supported the winners.
In California, almost 80% of registered voters turned out, the highest percentage in 32 years. In Los Angeles, almost 83%. If not as dramatic as Iraqi citizens confirming their rights with ink-stained fingers, it was enough to suggest heightened interest in things political.
Not so fast. Last week in parts of Los Angeles, voters were called to the polls once again, to elect a state Senate replacement for Mark Ridley-Thomas, a Democrat who had moved to the county Board of Supervisors. Little more than 6% showed up.
It was not an anomaly: When the area's first post-presidential election, the Los Angeles mayor's race, was contested earlier this month, a muted 17% of the city's registered voters turned out.
Less than two months from now, the state's voters will decide whether to confirm or reject the multibillion-dollar budget deal forged by the Republican governor and Democratic legislative leaders. Few are optimistic that even half of the state's voters will take part; indeed supporters of the measures are focusing on the narrow band of voters who reliably mail in their ballots in every election.
That is a particularly dicey proposition for the supporters, given that, as a statewide poll from the Public Policy Institute of California found a few days ago, none of the key budget measures on the May ballot is winning among likely voters. But with limited dollars and little time to make the case, focusing on a specific few may be the best option they have.
"Keep in mind that any time we're out talking to a broad universe of voters at press events or on television, 80% or 70% of the people seeing those messages are not going to vote," said Rick Claussen, co-manager of the campaign for the measures. "So the return on investment is not that great."
If there is a lesson from the local elections so far, it is that the excitement spurred by the presidential contest is exceedingly hard to replicate. Barack Obama was reaching for history, the economy was spiraling downward, war in Iraq was pushing toward its sixth year. Hard to match those stakes, according to some who have tried.
Robert Cole was the director of Obama's get-out-the-vote effort among African Americans in California, which succeeded dramatically. Last Tuesday, he was the third-place finisher among Democrats in the state Senate race.
Rather than inspire heightened turnout, he said, Obama's campaign appeared to have left many voters burned out. "They felt they had performed their civic duty by voting for Barack Obama for president," he said.
Assemblyman Mike Davis, who finished second among Democrats to his fellow legislator Curren Price Jr., was more blunt about the reasons for poor turnout in both March local races. "We didn't have any Obama in the last two elections," he said.
There are, to be sure, other reasons. The two races took place in the shadow of the presidential inauguration and at a time when voters' attention was more focused on lost jobs and threatened homes. Neither race occurred at a typical time; despite the recent turn toward early spring primaries, that remains June and November. And perhaps this state just asks people to go to the polls too often -- five times in 13 months for some Los Angeles residents.
A strong turnout relies on electoral alchemy: a candidate voters either love or hate fighting against a compelling alternative, a pivotal and understandable set of issues, a general environment in which people feel that their votes matter.
All of that complicates the campaign for the state budget measures. This election, too, will take place at an odd time: Mail-in ballots will go out at the end of April, with voting on May 19. The campaign lacks statewide candidates, and the governor and legislators who will be encouraging a "yes" vote are at record lows in popularity. The ballot measures themselves are complex and center on a subject that voters tend to want their elected leaders to handle -- the budget -- even if the leaders' options have shriveled because of the budget initiatives approved by voters in the past.
Not all signs point to an exceedingly low turnout. California Secretary of State Debra Bowen reported earlier this month that voter registration had continued to climb after the presidential contest. The public policy institute poll found that almost 6 in 10 voters described themselves as very or somewhat "happy . . . about having to vote" in the May election.
Institute pollster Mark Baldassare noted that turnout exceeded expectations in two recent special elections, the 2003 recall and the 2005 reform election in which voters repudiated several Schwarzenegger proposals.
But Claussen, who is helping lead the campaign for the May measures, said his own expectation of a 30% turnout among registered voters -- which would be the lowest statewide election turnout in at least a century -- "may be optimistic."
Yet often who turns out is as important as how many. The voters most likely to cast ballots in May are more conservative and whiter than the state as a whole, and right now those groups are most strongly opposed to the measures.
If Cole, the state senate candidate, is right, the biggest problem for the proponents may be the sour attitude he discovered as he searched for votes.
"They don't feel that the system is loyal or true to them; people feel that politicians are going to do what they are going to do anyway," he said. "That hampers peoples' desire to vote."
Each Sunday, The Week examines one or more of the previous week's major stories and their implications for our state or our region.