Election Day in California: Many reasons for pride

150 150 Christopher Nelson

Typical Election Day coverage consists of talking to voters at polling locations, but we decided to take a different approach and talk to as many county registrar offices as we could to get their perspectives on yesterday’s big day.

Why did we do this? 

As reflected by Democrats winning a super-majority in the state Legislature and the fact that almost half of all new voter registrants did so as Democrats, the general political leanings of Californians is no mystery.

However, with a record 18.2 million voters registered in California this year, the debut of Online Voter Registration (OVR), new district lines thanks to the Citizens’ Redistricting Commission (CRC), and Top-Two Primaries coming to fruition for the first time on Election Day, voting itself had several new twists.

So what did we learn? In short, California has a lot to be proud of in the aftermath of November 6.

With so many stories coming from so many other states about purported voter fraud and attempts at marginalizing minority voters, the narrative was quite the opposite in the Golden State.

Latino, Asian-American and young voters came out en masse, showing negligible drop-offs from the record-setting 2008 election. OVR made it much easier for swaths of newly-eligible voters to make their voices heard. Even with California’s electoral votes all but locked up for President Obama before the counting began, much was at stake for many people in the statewide and local initiatives.

As every single one of the county registrars we spoke with noted, the polls were extremely busy throughout the day, from San Bernardino to Yolo. They also noted that things were going very smoothly and that OVR was a huge boon to turnout across the board.

Almost all said that increased turnout is always the case in a national election year, but others offered more localized explanations as well.

“Props 30, 32 and 38 are driving turnout as well,” said Cathy Allen, County Clerk for Shasta County.

Gail Pellerin, County Clerk for Santa Cruz, agreed with her counterpart. “State props are generating a lot of voter interest,” she said. “Locally, hot contests in the 5th District Supervisor, Santa Cruz city council, and with seven local measures,” are also driving turnout she said.

Clerks from Tulare, Marin and Napa also backed the above sentiments. San Bernardino couldn’t speak to numbers at the time we contacted them and Santa Barbara and Sonoma saw flatter turnout that was less than 2008 and relatively on par with 2004. 

Overall, much of what we were told makes a strong case against voter apathy in The Golden State. Big deals have been made of Latino and youth voter turnout on the national scale and this held true in California as well.

In talking about which of the polling locations in her county were busy, Freddie Oakley, Yolo County Clerk Recorder, noted that one of the busiest was on the University of California campus. She attributed this partially to the long processing time for provisional ballot drop-off, but the interest was there nonetheless.

Considering 670,000 new voters came on board through OVR and there were massive outreach efforts on UC and CSU campuses (both using Prop 30, which passed, as a means to connect the political sphere to students’ everyday lives), it’s no wonder that young voters were just as energized as in 2008 despite the perceived decline in enthusiasm for Obama as an incumbent.

Finally, responses from the Registrar offices were mixed when asked about the effects of the new Top-Two Primary structure and newly drawn district lines.

Both caused some confusion, either by voters not seeing their party affiliation represented on their ballots or because of new polling locations from last year. Both also lent some extra heat to local races. You can read our coverage of one such race here.

But some of the County Clerks we spoke with wouldn’t speculate. Janice Atkinson of Sonoma County thought that constituents in her county hardly noticed the Top Two Primary because “we have changed the Primary Election so many times in recent years.” But Sonoma also saw a huge percentage of their votes come in by mail, according to Atkinson, which could easily account for less direct impact on Election Day.

John Tuteur in Napa County was alone in bringing up an interesting issue raised by the Top Two Primary: “A single qualified write-in vote can move a person into the General Election. There should be a 1 percent limit, per existing law,” Tuteur said.

Additionally, “a write-in candidate under existing law can force a recount fo the entire county looking for ballots where a name was written-in but the required voting system mark was not made.”

Luckily, this never happened. But it is an important footnote to an otherwise successful and engaging Election Day in California. 

With trigger cuts to education and other areas avoided, the CRC’s district lines upheld, record voter registration bucking the predicted steep drop-off from 2008’s participation levels, and two new structural reforms to the election process in place, Californians should indeed be proud that November 6 went as smoothly as it did.


Christopher Nelson

All stories by: Christopher Nelson