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CALIFORNIA ELECTIONS : Voter Turnout Rate Is State’s Lowest Ever : Election: An Orange County registrar’s official estimates only 33.3% of those eligible cast ballots. Political scientists say it is part of a decade-long trend across the nation.

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Turned off by nasty campaigning, predictable races and dull propositions, California voters visited the polls in smaller numbers this Election Day than ever before, election officials said Wednesday, as they decried a dramatically small 32.9% unofficial voter turnout rate rate.

Even before Tuesday’s gubernatorial primary, acting Secretary of State Tony Miller predicted a historically low 39.8% turnout, and the Field Poll estimated that only 38% of the state’s 14.2 million registered voters would bother to exercise their voting privileges.

Wednesday’s unofficial turnout rate will probably rise to 37% once all absentee ballots are counted, Miller said. “Still,” he said, “it’s pathetic. Embarrassing. I can’t think of a word strong enough to say how I feel about the lack of participation.”

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In Orange County, the vote trickled out at a lower rate than at any time in the past 40 years, said Bev Warner, a spokeswoman for the registrar of voters office.

Only about a third of the county’s 1,153,694 registered voters turned up at the polls Tuesday.

“I’ve gone back to 1954 and this is the lowest,” Warner said. “I personally figured we’d get 40%. I didn’t expect to be as low as this.”

The unofficial tally was 31.3%, but more than 23,000 absentee ballots remained uncounted late Wednesday, said Assistant Registrar Rosalyn Lever. She predicted the final count to be about 33.3%. The previous voter low was 38% in June, 1986.

Mark Baldassare, a pollster and professor of social ecology at UC Irvine, said the low turnout reflected more despair than apathy on the part of voters.

“I think the campaigns were so negative that people were left with a feeling of hopelessness,” he said. “That’s not a mood that generates voting.”

Baldassare said voters have a sense that things have gotten so out of control in California that their vote no longer matters.

“They think that there’s nobody who has a sense of how to get things back on track here,” he said. “I don’t think that anyone running in this election generated confidence or hope in the future.”

Elsewhere in Southern California voters did very little to help increase the early voting rate; only 29.7% of the registered voters in Los Angeles County voted, and San Bernardino County recorded the lowest unofficial voting rate in the state--27%.

“Going along during the day, I saw certain key precincts with 17% turnout,” said Dan Trumbo, assistant registrar of voters for San Bernardino County. “That’s really low. Being in this business since 1978, it’s very sad to see when people don’t vote.”

Political scientists on Wednesday looked coolly at the numbers and predicted that democracy in California is safe. They said the voting rate, though dismal, is part of a decade-long trend.

“Some voters have become occasional voters,” said Mark DiCamillo, director of the Field Poll. “They’ve chosen to vote in general elections but not in the primary elections as regularly. Part of that has to do with the lack of familiarity of the candidates running, especially with an election like yesterday.”

Curtis Gans, director of the Washington-based Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, points to New York’s Democratic primary in 1992 as an indicator of how low voter turnout can get--and how California’s turnout, though bad, is par for the course on a national level.

“When Bill Clinton ran in the Democratic primary in New York, there were 7% of the electorate that voted,” Gans said. “It isn’t terrible what you had there (in California). Given what the stimuli were--one-sided races, no coverage except for newspapers, fuzzed-up issues and a scurrilous campaign on television--it’s not a bad turnout.”

Gans and Bruce Cain, a political scientist at UC Berkeley, both blame increasingly low turnout on the inability of grass-roots organizations and political parties to interest and mobilize voters.

The worst previous Election Day was the June primary in 1986, according to the secretary of state’s office, when 40.45% of registered voters went to the polls.

On major candidates and major issues, voters hold views very similar to those of their less-interested non-voting neighbors, Gans said. Though he does not believe that low participation would lead to different election results, Gans does fear that it leads to a less healthy political system.


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