What low voter turnout in Southern California tells us – San Bernardino Sun

Low voter turnout is generally expected in primary races elections, particularly in non-presidential years.

So, as Tuesday’s statewide primary returns developed this week, the question begged: Will voter turnout in Southern California reach a record low? And what does that mean for representation?

Preliminary numbers from the California Secretary of State’s Office on Wednesday afternoon indicated only a 16% turnout statewide among voters registered prior to Election Day.

That figure was similar to what was seen across Southern California among the earlier returns with Los Angeles County reporting about 14%, Orange County at 19%, San Bernardino County at 11%, and Riverside County at 16%, according to county registrars and the Secretary of State’s Office.

But it’s important to keep in mind that ballots sent by mail — postmarked by Tuesday and received within seven days of Election Day — will continue to be counted in the coming days.

County election officials have various methods for how and when ballots are counted as they come in, but they must report final results to the Secretary of State’s Office by July 8. Then, the office will certify the results of the primary election on July 15.

“It’s going to be a low turnout primary when all is said and done,” said Eric McGhee, a senior fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California focused on elections. “You have to be careful because (it’s) not just that California has long been a heavily vote-by-mail state, but now we are an all-vote-by-mail state, and most people wait until pretty late in the process to return those.

“There’s going to be a lot of ballots left to count, especially in these early days,” he said.

That was true of the March 2020 primary election in Los Angeles County, for example, when only about 2% of ballots were returned during the first week, 7% the second week, and 16% the third week. Three-quarters of the ballots were returned during the fourth week, according to data from the Los Angeles County Registrar-Recorder.

Still, while higher turnout years — such as during a presidential contest or even a gubernatorial recall election — may result in a plethora of ballots waiting in the wings to be counted, that is not the case with this primary election.

“We are low for this point in the election cycle. There will be more ballots (to be counted), but even if we double what we have right now, we’re looking at potentially record low turnout at the state level,” Mindy Romero, the director of the Center for Inclusive Democracy at USC, said.

Lower voter turnout has become expected during midterm primary elections, experts said. Without a flashy presidential race, close gubernatorial contest, or statewide ballot proposal, turnout is expected to be lower than, for example, either the primary or general elections in 2016 or 2020.

And voters may not feel as engaged with primary elections. Ballots can be more complicated, leaving people waiting until November to vote, when choices are narrowed, Romero said.

“We’ve got an acceptance in our society around how we talk about primaries, the way their structure can be confusing to people,” Romero said. “There’s an information gap, and that information gap intensifies the disparity gap.”

“If we look at the low numbers, they’re much lower for voters of color, much lower for young people,” she continued. “Not only do we have a small percentage of eligible voters voting in a primary and choosing who is on the ballot for everybody, but it’s very unrepresentative … of the larger population. It is older, wealthier, whiter, very much so, than the general population. Really you have an elite few who don’t represent the beliefs and needs and desires of the overall population.”

California’s universal mail voting option is expected to boost voter turnout at least somewhat. McGhee said his research has shown mailing everyone a ballot can elevate turnout by as much as 3-4 percentage points — “a pretty healthy effect,” he said.

“This election was a good test of how much voter turnout in an otherwise unexciting midterm election could be boosted by having every voter receive a mail-in ballot,” Marcia Godwin, a professor of public administration at the University of La Verne, said in an email.

Historically, both San Bernardino and Riverside counties have lower primary and midterm election turnout compared to Orange County, Godwin said.

(In the 2018 midterm primary elections, about 42.9% of registered voters in Orange County voted compared to 35% in Riverside and 31% in San Bernardino, according to the Secretary of State’s Office.)

Riverside County Registrar of Voters Rebecca Spencer said this year’s turnout is projected to be lower than in 2018 but still about typical for what the county has seen for previous midterm primary elections.

Still, it’s “compelling elections” that drive turnout, Paul Mitchell, vice president of the Political Data Inc. firm, said, pointing to Georgia, a state with more voting restrictions but elections that cause voters to feel “like the future of the country was in their hands,” he said.

“It is possible that all these voting improvements — registering and updating voter registrations and mail-in ballots and not requiring postage — is, under the surface, increasing turnout, but it’s not soaring,” Mitchell told the Southern California News Group. “The game has to have a draw. There has to be interesting elections in order for voters to ultimately vote.”

As of Wednesday afternoon, statewide data showed Alpine (56%), Mariposa (42%), Amador (41%), and Sierra (40%) counties had the highest voter turnout.

Staff writers Beau Yarbrough and Jeff Horseman contributed to this report. 

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