What can be done to conquer California’s voter apathy?

150 150 Alexandra Bjerg

By now you’ve probably heard there’s a drought in California. But it’s not just water that’s in short supply. The state is also suffering from a shortage of active voters, brought about by a two-decade decline in voter participation. Despite efforts to reverse this alarming trend, the polls remain sparsely filled with voters. While the negative effects of voter apathy aren’t as immediate, if unaddressed, the potential long-term impact on the health of our democracy is severe.

Last week, the League of Women Voters of Los Angeles hosted a discussion about what’s causing decreased civic participation. Not surprisingly, the group, composed of active voters, was far from representative of the electorate. The makeup of the room speaks directly to the heart of the problem. Voter turnout is generally unrepresentative of the entire voting age population.

“You guys are weird eggs for being here in the middle of the day having a political conversation,” said the guest speaker Tracy Zeluff, noting that on average, people spend a mere seven minutes a campaign cycle on politics.

When asked why Californians aren’t voting, Zeluff said, people lives are so busy, “voting is seen as an inconvenience.”  Nodding in agreement, one attendee pointed to utter exhaustion as the cause of low turnout. “There are too many elections,” she said.

Uncompetitive races won’t generate voter enthusiasm argued another attendee. “In most elections, I can tell you who the winner is before voting,” said a former employee of the county’s election administration office. “That discouraged voters.”

So what can be done to tackle voter apathy?

With 25 years of experience working on political campaigns in California under her belt, Zeluff says there’s no silver bullet to increase participation. “If there was one simple way,” she added, “we’d do it.” However, Zeluff believes direct voter contact is the most effective method of engagement. Apologizing to voters on the receiving end, the senior partner at GroundWorks Campaigns said, “you have to hit people as many ways as possible.” At some point the message will get through.

“Voting is a social act,” Zeluff said, stressing the importance of leveraging existing social networks. For example, voter participation among Koreans began increasing, once Korean churches started engaging politically. In many cases tapping into networks first requires providing a basic level of civic education, which Zeluff indicates is essential to increasing voter participation.

The decisions made by public officials impact our daily lives, yet people often feel that election results don’t matter; the outcomes won’t affect their lives. It’s important to educate people about the importance of voting, so that they understand “part of power is getting your community out to vote,” said Zeluff.  

It’s clear that there are as many root causes of decreasing turnout as there are potential solutions. If only there was some kind of “voter dance” to appease the election gods so that California may once again be in their favor. Like crops need water to grow, democracy needs voters to thrive. 


Alexandra Bjerg

All stories by: Alexandra Bjerg