June California primary could set record for lowest turnout ever

150 150 Ed Coghlan

If California Chrome was running in California’s June primary election instead of the Belmont Stakes, our election turnout would improve dramatically on June 3. 

But he’s not, and most who follow California’s political races would wager that the June primary will set a record for the lowest turnout in state history. Lower turnout results in less diversity at the polls. So in one disconcerting way, it’s very similar to the Belmont Stakes (or the Kentucky Derby or the Preakness) in that both primaries and Triple Crown horse races are generally attended by an older, whiter, wealthier and by extension, less diverse sampling of the electorate.

In fact, there are few true horse races happening throughout the state. Here and there, sure, but generally, we are greeting this election with a collective yawn. When the Secretary of State race is your Secretariat equivalent, you’ve got problems. Election officials, voter advocates and anyone else with a stake in increasing civic participation are frustrated.

Adding insult to injury: This week, the deadline to register to vote in the primary came and went, and more than 6 million Californians eligible to vote hadn’t even bothered to register. 

Over the weekend, I was talking with a political operative about a contested State Assembly race he’s involved with in Southern California in a largely Democratic district. The race itself has produced three fairly attractive candidates. There were nearly 50,000 vote-by-mail ballots sent out into the district and as of Friday (May 16) less than 200 had been returned. 

Those numbers don’t paint a pretty picture considering that 65 percent of all ballots cast in the last statewide primary were done so by mail.

As California Forward points out on its website: Californians have grown distrustful of their government, disappointed and detached. Without pride of ownership, loyalty to place, or an emotional investment in a common vision for the future, public decision-making is abandoned to a few for the benefit of some.

The Legislature’s decision to shift ballot initiatives to November may also be depressing turnout. The lack of controversial measures to draw out voters dampens enthusiasm and awareness. And despite how the top two primary empowers independents by allowing them to vote in what were exclusively party affairs prior, it still won’t have the net effect of the sheer maelstrom that surrounded Prop 8 in 2008 or the raw dollars pumped into ads in the Prop 30 war from 2012. Those years also had the added benefit of a presidential election.

And then there is the Governor’s race. You won’t find anyone who would label it as even remotely competitive, with Democratic incumbent Jerry Brown as the decisively prohibitive favorite. There may be some interesting noise made between the two Republicans before June 3rd rolls around. Neel Kashkari has attracted the support of the Republican establishment while Assemblyman Tim Donnelly is a favorite of the Libertarian and Tea Party faithful. 

But unlike even a lopsided presidential election, whatever noise happens as a result of Kashkari/Donnelly still won’t be enough to coerce normally complacent voters out of their chairs. Like the pursuit of the Triple Crown, people want drama. They want a favorite, but they also want an underdog with a fighting chance.

Most people believe that the higher the office, the higher the stakes. If the governor’s race is already decided, why bother? What most don’t realize is that a County Supervisor, for example, can easily impact a Los Angeles resident’s day-to-day life far more frequently than a governor can. We aren’t certain how many Angelenos realize Zev Yaroslavky’s long-occupied seat on the County Board of Supervisors is up for grabs.

Maybe if candidates were required to wear flamboyant hats, like those seen at the Derby, there would be a little more intrigue with the fashion where the races are lacking it. Maybe if mint juleps were served at polling locations, there would be a better reason to get out for a primary on a hot June day.

For now, we’ll see if California Chrome can win what is (regrettably) the most talked about race in the state that gave him his name.


Ed Coghlan

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