Where voting is serious

Heather Foster initially felt unabashed pride, followed by a touch of sheepishness.

“We’re awesome,” then, “Well, we have been better.”

Foster is the registrar of voters in Sierra County, which showed the rest of California how it is done in Tuesday’s anemically attended special election.

The unofficial voter turnout in the conservative, rural enclave was 53.6% -- higher than any other county in the Golden State, nearly double the statewide figure and more than three times the turnout in Los Angeles County.


Sierra had a 10-point lead over No. 2 Alpine County, which clocked an impressive 43.4% turnout.

“I was impressed,” Foster said. Still, she admitted, Tuesday’s turnout was a far cry from the 2008 presidential election, when nearly 87% of the county’s registered voters cast ballots.

In one precinct, 95% of the voters cast a ballot for president; 184 out of a possible 194. The county went overwhelmingly for Republican John McCain, but voters did make their views known.

Voting is about the only means that residents have of ensuring that their voices are heard in California’s sparsely populated mountain country. Sierra County has fewer than four people per square mile. There are 2,256 registered voters. The closest real city is one state over. Boom times tend to pass the region by. Independence is a religion; responsibility, a civic virtue.

“We’re so far away, we have to travel so far, the only way we can get anything done is turning out as much as we can to show our concerns,” said Dennis McCreary, who owns a civil engineering firm in the county seat of Downieville. “Voting is the only way we can do it.”

It helps, of course, that Sierra and Alpine counties have all-mail balloting. And that Foster had election reminders put up in every Sierra County post office. And that there’s no home mail delivery to speak of, so everyone has to go to the post office and walk by the signs urging them to vote.

“This has nothing to do with the election itself,” said David Latterman of Fall Line Analytics, a San Francisco-based survey firm. “It’s a wonderful case study. You have an isolated area, give them all mail-in and you get phenomenal turnout. . . . It has nothing to do with how motivated they are.”

Joanne Nunes, a government teacher at Loyalton High School, would beg to differ. She believes that Sierra County is “probably a throwback to a time gone by,” filled with “people who care about the community, get involved, are very knowledgeable about what’s going on and believe their vote makes a difference. That’s huge.”

And besides, said Cindy Ellsmore, chairwoman of the Sierra County Democratic Central Committee, it’s not all that easy to vote by mail. Ellsmore lives in Sierra City, a dozen miles from the county seat. People figure that if they’re that close, they can mail their ballot the night before the election and their vote will still count.

Think again. Ellsmore said her mail goes first to Reno, 77 miles east, then back to Marysville, nearly 122 miles southwest, before heading the 65 miles northeast to Downieville.

“Every year there’s always 20 ballots or so that aren’t counted because they get there too late,” she said. “And elections have been decided on one or two votes.”