MARKLEEVILLE, Calif. — Tess Castle, drinking a mid-afternoon pint at the Wolf Creek Restaurant & Bar on a recent afternoon, admitted something she had never told anyone before: She doesn't vote.
"Shame on you. I didn't know that," said bartender Danea McAvoy, 51, after selling lottery tickets to tourists passing through this bucolic town of 210 residents. "Shame on you."
The reaction may seem sharp, but it's because Castle, 28, is in a distinct minority in this picturesque county seat of tiny Alpine County.
Nearly everyone in this community along the crest of the Sierra Nevada — carved through graceful, tall pine groves and mountain peaks, halfway between Lake Tahoe and Yosemite — makes their mark on election day. On June 3, in one of the least compelling gubernatorial primary elections in memory, nearly 70% of voters cast ballots, the largest turnout per capita in the state.
California as a whole is on track to hit a record of a more dubious nature — 18.3% of voters cast ballots through election day on June 3. Absentee and provisional ballots are still being counted, but voting experts expect the state to end up with a turnout of 22% to 23% — far less than any in recent history — when the tally is finalized in early July.
That's a roughly 10-point drop from the last gubernatorial primary, part of a long-term trend in California, where fewer voters are casting ballots in primary elections as more choose not to affiliate with a political party.
Paul Mitchell, vice president of Political Data, a nonpartisan firm that tracks voting patterns, said these voters tend to prefer casting ballots in November, when they think they might be able to affect the outcome.
"It's kind of like what you see in sports where some people don't pay attention to football until the Super Bowl rolls around," Mitchell said.
In Alpine County — the least populous of the state's 58 counties and fondly referred to as the California Alps — all residents vote by mail, one of only two counties to do so in the state. Alpine instituted all-mail balloting in 1989 because of its tiny yet sprawling population — fewer than 1,200 residents spread across 743 square miles — and because voters were often stymied going to the polls in November by deep drifts of snow.
"If I lived in Alpine County, voting could be the most exciting thing I do every two years," Mitchell said.
Joking aside, Mitchell said the high participation rates here are attributable to the comprehensive vote-by-mail system — every registered voter receives a ballot in the mail, not just those who request them — as well as demographics such as ethnicity, home ownership and age that tend to correlate with higher rates of electoral participation.
"There are other differences, but the data suggests that those people who become vote-by-mail have a higher turnout," he said, noting that Los Angeles County has a relatively low vote-by-mail population and a correlating low turnout.
Two states have long conducted elections exclusively by mail — Oregon and Washington — and their turnout rates exceed California's.
Some have argued that California ought to go that route, but they have been rebuffed by opponents who counter that taking away the communal polling place experience is one more loss for American civic life.
But in Alpine County there is a sense of Americana during election season, even if voters don't meet at the polls. Businesses hold informal meet-and-greets with candidates at the local ski resorts, and the county clerk traditionally hosts formal voter forums.
"We usually do coffee and cookies afterward," said county Clerk Barbara Howard.
And several voters interviewed here say there is a particular resolve to weigh in on politics in this remote region, where many residents get their news from Nevada television stations.
"I know virtually everyone who is running, on both sides," said contractor Nick Hartzell, 60. "It's mostly personal. I think a number of them spoke to me personally … they'll knock on doors. And unfortunately we have a lot of signs. I end up voting against the guy with the most signs."
At times of trouble, locals still gather at the wood-beam Markleeville General Store, built after a fire in the late 1800s and purveyor of everything from fishing licenses and locally made jewelry to beef jerky.
"Whenever our power goes out or anything happens, people come here, just like they used to back in the olden days," said general-store clerk Amy Pedroli, 55, who attributes the civic participation to the way of life in Markleeville. "There's such a sense of community here."
Aileen Bornstein, 54, said she never felt as great an urge to vote when she lived in the Bay Area. But on June 3, when she realized that she had failed to turn in her ballot, she raced to the county depository before the polls closed.
"I feel a sense of responsibility, I feel it would be missed if I didn't, where maybe in a larger area you feel like you get lost in the shuffle," Bornstein said at Stonefly, the pizza restaurant she owns here.
That feeling is compounded by a number of local competitions that have come down to the wire, from a sheriff's race two decades ago that tied at 276 votes for each of the candidates, to more recent auditor and school board races that were decided by fewer votes than can be counted on one hand.
"We see the results instantly. Everyone's more in touch," said Rita Lovell, 52, the librarian at a former schoolhouse. "That's part of reminding people who do get [complacent] — their vote does count."
McAvoy, the bartender, tried to press that point with Castle, who told her, "I don't pay attention to any of that stuff."
"Shame on you," McAvoy repeated.
"All right, well start educating me, miss," said Castle with a smile.
"Will do, will do," McAvoy responded. "We have a really tight community and people actually care about what goes on, and it is so small, people realize their votes are going to count."