The number of registered voters in California has dropped nearly 7% since the 1996 presidential election, in part because of renewed efforts to remove nonvoters from voting lists, according to the secretary of state's office.
As of January, almost 14.6 million Californians were registered to vote, down from the 1996 total of almost 15.7 million, the highest in state history, said office spokesman Alfie Charles.
"The key is to take off the deadwood," Charles said in an interview Wednesday. "For the past 20 years there hasn't been a real focus on removing ineligible voters after they died or moved away."
As a result, election officials, including Secretary of State Bill Jones, say that voter rolls and turnout figures for the state primary in June should be more accurate. Also, they say, the purge of voters will save election officials the cost of sending out unneeded ballots.
Most experts say much of the drop can be credited to Jones' aggressive drive to clean up the voter rolls, combined with existing efforts to cull ineligible voters. Apathy among the electorate may also play a part, according to experts.
Charles acknowledged that voter registration typically declines after a presidential election. For example, two years after President Clinton's election in 1992, registration was down 4.2% in California.
The percentage of voters declined even more steeply after the 1996 election, Charles said, because of a new residency confirmation program championed by Jones to weed out those who have moved or died.
Under the program, officials attempt to contact registered voters after they fail to cast ballots in four consecutive federal elections or in any local balloting during that same period. If a postcard is not returned, the voter's name is placed in the inactive file.
At the time of the 1996 election, Jones estimated that inactive voters statewide composed 10% to 20% of voter rolls--though local election officials say it's difficult to determine the exact figures.
A survey by the secretary of state taken at the end of 1997 of eight counties, including Orange, San Diego and San Bernardino, showed that the program to remove inactive voters seemed to be working. It revealed that more than 9% of the voters in those areas had been eliminated from voting rolls, state officials said.
In Los Angeles County, 213,000 registrants were purged after the 1996 election through a parallel effort. Still, overall Los Angeles County registration grew slightly in the past two years.
Conny McCormack, Los Angeles County registrar-recorder/county clerk, said the county's computer system cannot track whether someone has voted in municipal elections.
"I don't want to bump off people [from voting rolls] who just vote in city elections," McCormack said. However, starting next year, her agency plans to have computer capability to coordinate voting records with the county's cities.
Jones' efforts to clean up the voting rolls drew praise from a onetime rival.
Tony Miller, who served as acting secretary of state before Jones edged him out for the post in the 1994 election, said the purge is "long overdue."
Miller, now a Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor, suggested that some of the drop in registered voters is rooted in apathy. "My sense is that there's not a great deal of enthusiasm out there to register and vote," he said.
The decrease in registered voters was welcome news among political consultants.
"We are happy," said Democratic political consultant Richie Ross, "because we don't have to waste money mailing to people who ain't there. Who needs fake numbers?"
Warren reported from Orange County and Gladstone from Sacramento.