Nearly 29,000 San Benito County adults were registered to vote in the June 5 primary. In neighboring Santa Clara County, the number of registered voters was a record, approaching 850,000. The “turnout”—the percentage of registered voters that actually cast ballots—was considered above average for a “primary in a non-presidential election year.” Regardless of the counties’ size, the turnout was about the same in both: 42 percent.
Familiar patterns repeated themselves. More votes were cast for races—such as governor—at the top of the long ballot, than at the end. “Voter fatigue,” they call it. Candidates in uncontested races understandably received fewer votes than those in contested races. The numbers of voters increased slightly for certain hot-button propositions and local measures—and special items such as the recall of a Santa Clara County judge.
There are some new trends in California, largely the result of legislative and administrative actions. While some states have been—and still are—working hard to discourage challenges to incumbents by gerrymandering, making it harder to register to vote or even stay registered and making it harder to vote by limiting hours, eliminating polling places and limiting mail ballots, California has steadily moved in opposite directions.
The nearly automatic voter registrations tied to car registrations, the aggressive marketing of mail-in ballots and elimination of postage on mail ballots in many counties, as well as moves in some counties to allow votes at any local polling places have increased the number of registered voters and actual voters across the board.
There are some striking new trends that accelerated in this month’s primary elections:
More registered voters, more voters and most votes ever cast before Election Day: both statewide and locally, while 10 percent of voters voted by mail 20 years ago, and 40 percent 10 years ago, nearly 85 percent voted before Election Day this month.
All these efforts to increase participation in democracy’s most fundamental act did little to increase the “turnout’ percentages, or to increase the number of uncontested races at the local level.
The “turn away” numbers in the primary still outnumbered the “turn out” numbers. If historical patterns prevail, those percentages will reverse for the general election, with a likely 60 percent turnout for governor. In recent “presidential” years, that increased to 80 percent and higher.
Take another look at the numbers, and it gets disheartening—fast. Look at the “half-glass empty,” instead of “half-glass full”: 17,000 citizens of San Benito County and a half-million in Santa Clara County turned away from voting, letting others decide who their candidates might be.
In San Benito, these turnaways let others actually decide final outcomes in the election of a new sheriff, since incumbent Darren Thompson received 72 percent of the vote.
When you consider that November winners, even if they get 55 percent of the vote, will win with an actual approval of just one-third of registered voters, you realize our political system at the most critical local level is in need of repair and rejuvenation.
Let’s focus these next four months on some electoral rejuvenation, on the turn-away numbers instead of the turnout. Votes count, especially to the people who count votes.