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California Politics: Millions of voters are skipping this election

Josh Hodas and Serena Delgadillo cast ballots
Josh Hodas, left, and partner Serena Delgadillo were among people who cast their votes in the historic Los Angeles Union Station Ticket Hall on Sept. 13, 2021.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

If California’s statewide primary election feels a little, well, meh in this homestretch of the voting season, you’re not alone.

With only days left for candidates to make their case to voters, most Californians hardly seem to have noticed Tuesday’s contest to winnow the field of state, congressional and legislative candidates down to two finalists. It’s especially noticeable given that there are more opportunities to participate than in any other primary election in the state’s history.

In tracking the return of mail-in ballots, it appears that even a last-minute surge of interest might not keep the June 7 election from landing near the historical low point of voter turnout — in competition with 2014 for the lowest turnout of registered voters in California history.

Voting in the primary? Nope

Statewide primaries are rarely big turnout events in California. November elections are almost always the most popular, especially those involving the presidency. The November 2020 election saw the highest percentage turnout of California registered voters since 1976 and of eligible voters since 1952.

By comparison, you have to go back to 1982 to find a California gubernatorial primary in which at least half of all registered voters participated, a level of voter engagement that’s reached in almost every November election.

Undoubtedly there was going to be a drop in interest from 2020 for this primary, an election featuring no national candidates and no statewide ballot measures.

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Even so, things are awfully quiet this time around.

Analysts at Political Data Inc., a for-profit campaign research company, have been tracking the return of California ballots since some 22 million of the documents were mailed to voters the first week of May.

As of Friday morning, only 11% of ballots had been returned to county elections officials across the state.

It’s important to point out that the number of registered voters is at an all-time high, so the totals shouldn’t be misconstrued as fewer votes having been cast. Quite the contrary: More than 2.4 million ballots have been collected, a number equal to roughly one-third of all California ballots cast in the 2018 gubernatorial primary.

Even then, the numbers will undoubtedly go up. Although the state now mails every voter a ballot and most voters live in counties that offer early in-person voting, it’s still in the final few days of an election season when fence-sitting voters typically get serious. Remember, too, that California law allows any ballot postmarked by election day to count if it arrives in a local elections office by June 14. All of that translates into voter turnout numbers that will rise in the days and weeks to come.

As for how bad — or not so bad — it might be, consider the historical markers. The record for low turnout in a California statewide primary is 25.17% of registered voters, set in 2014. Setting aside that election, the average gubernatorial primary over the last two decades is closer to 35%. Apply that to current voter registration and the marker for this to be a typical primary is probably a turnout of about 7.8 million voters.

Voting ‘is a lot of work’

The conventional explanation among many political watchers for the anemic response from California voters is that there just aren’t any exciting races on the June 7 ballot.

But that doesn’t square up with the data, even from places with big contests up for grabs. In Los Angeles, home to a fiercely contested race for mayor, only about 9% of ballots had been returned as the week comes to a close. The numbers are slightly higher in San Francisco — 16% of ballots returned — as voters there are being asked whether to recall Dist. Atty. Chesa Boudin.

Early turnout has been weak, too, in the most competitive congressional races in California. District data largely track with what’s being seen on the statewide level, with a slightly better rate of ballot return in the Southern California race featuring incumbent Democratic Rep. Mike Levin and in a new Northern California district dominated by Republicans such as Assemblymember Kevin Kiley and Sacramento Sheriff Scott Jones.

Perhaps the reason for low turnout isn’t apathy but, rather, uncertainty.

“I think this is an incredibly difficult ballot,” said Kim Alexander, president of the nonpartisan California Voter Foundation. “It’s easy to fill out a ballot, but to make informed choices is a lot of work.”

Voters have been given a lot of ways to cast ballots — at home, in person, before election day, up until the last minute before polls close — but California lawmakers haven’t been as dedicated to providing the funding needed for more voter outreach and education.

“Our lawmakers love to talk about how we don’t put up the barriers to voting that other states do,” Alexander said. “But we’re also not inviting people to participate in the way that we need to.”

Campaigns certainly don’t provide consistent information. In fact, political organizations often based their efforts on whether a voter participated in the last election. Voters who might not participate, in those cases, don’t hear from the campaigns and then don’t participate this time around. And the cycle keeps repeating itself.

Keep an eye on an effort in this month’s state budget negotiations to boost funding for voter awareness efforts that are run by local elections officials. Supporters believe it’s a key step toward actually getting people to cast the ballots that, at least in this election, seem to be languishing in piles of mail and on kitchen tables across the state.

Newsom, Bonta dominate in new poll

For those voters who are thinking about casting ballots in this week’s primary, they aren’t likely to make any surprise decisions in the two biggest California races.

A poll released Friday by UC Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies and co-sponsored by the Los Angeles Times found no challengers currently pose an electoral threat to Gov. Gavin Newsom or state Atty. Gen. Rob Bonta. In fact, the biggest surprise may be how lopsided the races could be once votes are counted.

The poll finds an astounding 40-point gap between Newsom, the choice of 50% of voters surveyed, and Republican state Sen. Brian Dahle, who was chosen by 10% of voters and leading all other candidates on the ballot. By comparison, only 16% of voters said they were undecided.

In the race for attorney general, the poll’s biggest news may be that despite the efforts of a high-profile “no party preference” candidate, the contest is likely to result in Bonta facing one of two Republicans in November. The poll found only 6% of voters surveyed chose Sacramento Dist. Atty. Anne Marie Schubert, who dropped her GOP affiliation in 2018, while four times as many voters prefer one of the prominent Republicans — attorneys Eric Early and Nathan Hochman — to advance to November. Bonta far outpaced the challengers, winning the backing of 46% of voters surveyed.

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California politics lightning round

— After a tumultuous few days over the Memorial Day weekend, Robert Rivas, a San Benito County Democrat and an advocate for farmworkers, secured the support Tuesday of his current Democratic colleagues to become the next speaker of the California Assembly.

— With no widely known, well-funded challenger to Newsom’s reelection, a motley assortment of deep thinkers, also-rans and fed-up political neophytes each hope that, just maybe, they will shock California by winning enough votes in the June 7 primary to face off against the governor in November.

— Meet the young, ambitious Black man who wants Devin Nunes’ old House seat. Can water resource manager Lourin Hubbard defeat the favored candidate?

An infant’s death prompts angry accusations in the Riverside County district attorney’s race.

— To many throughout California, the stakes in a Shasta County supervisor’s race go far beyond the concerns of local voters.

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