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Voter Turnout at Polls Could Be Record Low

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

California voters stayed home from the polls in numbers headed straight for the record books Tuesday, but don’t blame Joe Davison.

Fifteen minutes before the polls closed Tuesday night, in the tiny mountain enclave of Follows Camp, Davison got in his Jeep, got on his citizens band radio, and badgered his neighbors--all 140 or so who are registered to vote.

“I tried to reach them . . . at around a quarter to 8 to remind everybody who hadn’t made it to the polls,” says Davison, owner of the Follows Camp mobile home park, which is in the San Gabriel Mountains above Azusa. “I think we got three more voters.”

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But the tiny precinct couldn’t crack a 40% voter turnout no matter how hard Davison tried. And, as goes Follows Camp goes, so goes California. Ninety minutes before Davison took to the airwaves, acting Secretary of State Tony Miller lowered his already dismal Election Day prediction.

“We had predicted a pathetic, historic low of 39.8%,” Miller said. “Based upon what we know right now, it could be closer to 37%. That would be the lowest turnout in a major election since we started keeping records in 1916.”

Orange County too appeared to be flirting with the record low turnout of 38% set here in 1988.

Beverly Warner, a supervisor at the Orange County registrar of voters office, said final figures would not be available until today, but “I would figure it would be about 40% of registered voters, which is what people predicted.”

Arlene Whitehall wouldn’t be surprised if the turnout was even lower than that. She has been a precinct worker for 35 years, all near Wilshire Boulevard and Western Avenue, and this election will be her last.

“I’ve been here since 6:30 this morning,” Whitehall said as she sat in the polling place at James Barber Shop and waited grumpily for the voters to arrive. “It’s been terrible. Out of 500 registered voters, we only have 100 regular ballots. This is too much, to sit here all day.”

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If it weren’t for Frank Genardi, barbershop owner and violinist extraordinaire, “We’d all be bored to death,” she said. “He plays classical and he plays modern and he plays the themes of the ‘40s when I could dance.”

But can he explain a 20% turnout? He certainly cannot. “We gave ‘em all that we usually give: happy faces, pretty music,” Genardi insisted as the clocked ticked down to closing time.

At the lifeguard headquarters garage in Venice, another makeshift polling place, a disgusted Delilah Bolden waited for crowds that never arrived. “The weather’s beautiful, but the voting’s lousy. We don’t have more than about 100 who have voted already and it’s 5 o’clock. We have about 600 voters. That’s very low. It’s nothing. I don’t know what happened.”

There are some obvious reasons turnout was low in this election. This wasn’t a presidential election year, and neither primary in either of the top two races--for governor and for U.S. Senate--ended up being very close. Also, none of the ballot propositions were of the sensational, high-spending kind that can draw voters to the polls.

As Miller points out, it’s not like this turnout is an aberration, a stunning drop in a stellar record. The last several elections have seen fewer and fewer people come out to the polls.

“There is an historic pattern here,” he said. “And there’s not any single factor that’s causing it. There are not a lot of hot-button measures on the ballot. The candidates for even the top offices haven’t excited voters. More basic than that, people don’t think it makes any difference who’s elected. . . . People are giving up on the ability of the process to respond to the issues people face.”

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If Miller’s prediction holds, less than one-sixth of California’s population will have made decisions on the primary ballot.

By 3 p.m. Tuesday, only 15.72% of the registered voters in Los Angeles County had turned out at the polls, nearly 2 percentage points less than those who had voted by the same time in June, 1990, the most apathetic Election Day in county history, said Marcia Ventura, spokeswoman for the Los Angeles County registrar-recorder.

“We may be even lower than the 37.7% in 1990,” Ventura said. “It may be voter apathy. There may be nothing of interest to the voters on the ballot. It might be that the politicians have not campaigned enough. It’s a difficult one.”

In person-on-the-street interviews, no one said the dog ate the sample ballot, but excuses for not voting on Tuesday were right up there. “I’m underage,” insisted one young woman as she headed toward her Civic Center bus stop. “I’m 20.”

Gently informed that the voting age was 18, she stopped and stared and found another reason: “I didn’t even know you were supposed to vote today.”

OK, so how would he vote if he got to the polls on time? “I haven’t really paid much attention,” he said. “I’m too busy. I’ll just vote what my conscience tells me.”

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Cindy Culley was an even harder case. The overworked mother of a toddler was roused via CB by Joe Davison, her boss: “He was saying: ‘OK, you guys, it’s down to the wire. We gotta get going.’ ” Her response: “I have a 3-year-old daughter. I went from one eight-hour job to a part-time job. Cindy didn’t have a lot of time.”

In D&S; Plaza, a Winnetka mini-mall, four election officials waited for the voters at a card table wedged between carpet rolls and vinyl tile samples at Valley Discount Carpet. By noon, they had processed 69 of 550 registered voters. And with hours to go before after-work voters would show, they did their best to pass the time.

“We get to look at all the pretty colors and pick out carpets for our earthquake-damaged houses,” said Gloria Weber of Winnetka.

“We talk about food, decorating, anything,” added Ruther Chappell, also of Winnetka. “What do ladies talk about?”

At least one voter, however, apparently was willing to go to any extreme to vote--anywhere, that is, except his neighborhood polling place in central Orange County. He told county officials he was afraid to cast his vote because of a high-voltage line located at his polling place. Could he go somewhere else? Sure, he was told.

“Now, I’ve heard everything,” a clerk at the county office said.

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