Capitol Journal: A low voter turnout isn’t good for California

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Remember Willie Stark, the charming, corrupt character in “All the King’s Men”? He had it right.

“If ya don’t vote, ya don’t matter!” he shouted while barnstorming for governor.

That was in the 2006 movie version of Robert Penn Warren’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about a fictional politician — played on film by Sean Penn — who closely resembled Louisiana’s legendary Huey Long. In the book, Stark expounds with more sweep.

He urges “friends, rednecks, suckers and fellow hicks” to stand “on your own hind legs” and vote.


“If you’ve got the brain of a sapsucker left and can recognize the truth when you see it, this is the truth: You are a hick and nobody ever helped a hick but the hick himself…. It is up to you and God, and God helps those who help themselves.”

I often think of Stark around Election Day when an unusually low voter turnout is expected. Tuesday’s balloting could set an all-time low for California voting in a gubernatorial general election.

The current record-holder is the 2002 contest won by Democratic Gov. Gray Davis over Republican Bill Simon. Only 50.57% of registered voters and 36.05% of eligible citizens showed up. A lot more did 11 months later to recall Davis from office.

“The big picture story Tuesday may be that we gave an election and nobody came,” says veteran Democratic strategist Darry Sragow. “Voters are very disengaged. I don’t want to blame them. There just has been no governor’s race at the top of the ticket.

“There’s no dialogue of any kind that interests the voters about the future of the state or the problems crying out for a solution. There is nothing on the ballot that is engaging them because there’s nothing that has an impact on their daily lives.”

“There’s a lot going on in the world,” Sragow continues, “but little of it is being talked about in this election.” That’s especially true in some hot congressional races, the natural forum for worldly debates, but too often an arena for childish spitball tossing.


Actually, turnouts have been gradually declining for four decades. Blame anti-government alienation beginning with the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal, and continuing today with petty squabbling among polarized politicians.

In this state election, however, Gov. Jerry Brown must share the responsibility for an apathetic electorate. True, he has a weak opponent in political neophyte Neel Kashkari and really isn’t being challenged for a record fourth term. But until last week, he wasn’t even bothering to ask Californians for their votes. That’s sort of insulting.

Ambling around peddling water bond and budget reserve propositions just isn’t going to excite voters.

The governor missed a golden opportunity to turn out a bigger vote for Democratic legislative candidates and, more important, to outline a fourth-term policy agenda that he later could have claimed won an electoral mandate.

Brown got all huffy last week when reporters called him on being vague about his plans for a final term.

“Quite the opposite,” he replied in Modesto. “I have communicated more completely to the people of California than any other governor in history.”


Wrong. I don’t know about all the governors. But I’ve covered each one back to and including his father, Pat Brown. And all — including Gov. Jerry Brown 1 — were more accessible to the public and the news media than JB 2.

In Modesto, Brown rambled on to reporters — ranted, actually — about completing the agenda he has already commenced: realigning prisons, balancing the budget, re-plumbing the delta, creating the bullet train....

More typical, however, was what the governor had just told a crowd of supporters. “A fourth term,” he said, “will be very different than a first term or a second term and … a third term. Now, what that will all be, you just, you know, fasten your seat belt. It’ll be a very exciting ride.”

So a lot is at stake Tuesday. We just don’t know precisely what.

Although Brown hasn’t done much to pump up the turnout, he has helped Democratic legislative leaders by endorsing eight candidates in tough races.

At stake is the Democrats’ supermajority control of each house, won in the 2012 elections but ultimately lost in the Senate when three members were suspended because of felony charges.

It’s a tossup whether Democrats can regain that supermajority. But it’s overrated anyway. Budgets now can be passed by a simple majority. Tax increases need a two-thirds vote. But it could be political suicide for some Democrats to vote for raising taxes without broad bipartisan support.


Much more is at stake for the Republican Party, which is struggling to survive in California. Polls show that no Republican candidate for statewide office is likely to win — again. Democrats have more campaign money and a huge registration advantage — 15.2 percentage points in the final counting.

Tuesday’s election may answer whether the GOP “can get off life support or do we just administer last rites,” says Marty Wilson, chief political strategist for the California Chamber of Commerce and a former Republican consultant.

So California’s two-party system — what’s left of it — is at stake.

If you’ve read this far, you’re undoubtedly a committed voter. But if not, that just adds weight to the rest of our votes. We’ll be happy to vote for you.

Californians could have benefited by some Willie Stark wisdom from Jerry Brown.