In case you hadn’t heard, voter turnout in last week’s California Primary Election was low. Low doesn’t do it justice – abysmal, distressing and ghastly are more appropriate. As of this writing, approximately 18% of all registered voters in the Golden State bothered to cast a ballot.  If the bromide, ‘As California goes, so goes the nation” is true, we should all be worried.

Some 38 million souls reside in California – 12% of the American population. As a state, California is among the top 10 economies in the entire world and yet its citizens can’t be convinced to show up a vote on a Tuesday in June. We can’t make it much easier – polling places are open for 13 hours and we have ‘no-fault’ permanent absentee status – you can sit on your couch and vote – some counties even pay for the postage.

There are theories, some mechanical, some political, some practical and some existential. This is our second cycle, but first mid-term, with the ‘Top-Two’ primary system in which the top two finishers, regardless of party, advance to the General Election. The theory behind Proposition14 was to draw more moderate voters to the polls and achieve less partisanship in Sacramento.

Based on early reviews, the Top Two system has not had the desired effect. Indeed, rather than drawing less ideological voters to the polls, only the activist class of either party showed up – turning contests into hyper-partisan, and hyper-local affairs for the most part. Golden State thinkers such as Joe Mathews have already called for a review of whether the Top Two deserves to hang around.

As it turns out, even in California, party primary contests do matter. They give voters of each stripe the ability to choose their standard bearer. In some cases, where say, two Democrats advance to November, Republicans have no reason to show up for the General Election – they’d rather stay home than vote for anyone whom they disagree on most issues – and who can blame them?

The sheer size of California also contributes to low voter awareness of the candidates or their campaigns. With two of the most expensive media markets in the nation, only a handful of statewide campaigns and fewer local contests, can afford ad time on broadcast stations where the predominantly older electorate gets its news and political information.

The expense of advertising, and its inefficiency, has led to so-called ‘slate-mailers’ becoming the medium of choice for many campaigns. The political equivalent of the Pennysaver, for a fraction of traditional direct mail, millions of voters get a post-card with your candidate’s name, picture and 25 words (next to eight-ten others). Some campaigns this cycle went so far as to issue press releases when they’d secured a particularly well-thought of slate mailer.

Some voters go to the polls neither seeing political advertising or at least, not absorbing any of it. A man by the name of David Evans ran as a Republican in the contest for State Controller. He nearly finished in the top two – missing it by only about 2,000 votes. He spent $600 on his campaign. The second place finisher, Democratic Assembly Speaker John Perez, spent millions on his effort and is an acolyte of organized labor and nearly lost to a man from a city of 10,000 people.

Mostly though, Californians just don’t think their vote matters. And unfortunately, they may be right. Sacramento’s Capitol denizens sway with the winds of the special interests – whatever they may be – rather than solving any real problems. Despite wide swaths of the Central Valley still facing unemployment rates north of 15%, we do nothing to improve their lot – in fact, we make it harder for the heart of the state to create jobs.

Live in Los Angeles? Hate the potholes? Sorry, if you want them fixed, we’ll need to raise the sales tax – again. Live in a mid-sized city and want to reduce your pension costs? Sorry, it’s bankruptcy for you. Despite spending $100 billion a year on its state budget, it’s never enough. It is a system that does more things for less people than anywhere else in the country.  

California was once lauded for its public education system – the envy of the entire world. Now, we have scores of ‘dropout factories’, young African-American and Latino men are dropping out at an unacceptable rate. For all the talk of ‘fairness’ and ‘equality’, California is either unwilling or unable to reform its ways

The LA Times’ eminent political writer, Mark Z. Baraback posits it’s the ‘contentment’ of Californians that drove voter turnout to its lowest levels ever. But there is plenty to fix in California – we’re a big state and our issues are outsized as a result. With the exception of wealthy citizens on the coastal plain and Sacramento’s powerbrokers, contentment is hard to come by.

Is it little wonder that California voters went on about their daily lives last Tuesday? With so many poor candidates and so few competitive elections on the ballot, and no real expectation that their choices will make a difference, it was more important to go to work, go shopping, pick up the kids or go to the movies than visit their polling place and pull the lever. Let’s hope in this instance, the country does not follow California’s lead.

AuthorReed Galen