The last three California election cycles demonstrated that at the political margins, voter turnout can have a major impact.
Democrats achieved long-sought two-thirds “supermajorities” in both houses of the Legislature in 2012, lost them in 2014 when a few seats changed partisan hands, then regained them last year, albeit very narrowly.
The ups and downs largely stemmed from the fact that Democrats did well in presidential election years, when voter turnout is high, and relatively poorly in non-presidential “off years,” when turnout is markedly lower.
The 2014 cycle in which Republicans scored gains in legislative seats, in fact, was marked by record-low voter participation, with just 25 percent of registered voters casting ballots in the June primary and fewer than 50 percent in November’s general election.
It explains why Democrats are a bit nervous about Democratic Sen. Josh Newman’s chances of surviving a possible recall election in his Orange County-centered district. His narrow win in a traditionally Republican district last year provided the party’s Senate supermajority, thanks largely to a high presidential election turnout.
A special recall election would have a very low turnout, which would help the Republican Party’s effort to unseat Newman, so Democrats have changed election rules to make it more likely that the recall would appear on next year’s general election ballot instead. Turnout would be higher then, although probably less than were it a presidential election year.
Even if Newman survived a recall attempt, another low-turnout general election next year could see a few legislative seats go Republican and the supermajorities once again erased. That’s because the turnout differential between presidential and off-year elections appears to be growing, according to new research by the Public Policy Institute of California.
California’s overall voter registration falls short, vis-à-vis that of other states, and PPIC researcher Eric McGhee attributes that to low rates among fast-growing Latino and Asian populations. But McGhee attributes the very low, and declining, turnout in off-year elections to “the behavior of young voters.”
“Young people,” he writes in his report, “have been voting at slightly higher rates in presidential elections and at much lower rates in (off-years) than voters of the same age did two decades ago.”
Democratic leaders, concerned about the effects of low off-year election turnouts, have been trying to goose participation by making registration much easier, but McGhee believes that registration alone won’t close the gap and that highly focused get-out-the-vote efforts would be needed.
McGhee’s research doesn’t delve into motives of those who don’t vote, but it’s not a stretch to speculate that Democrats may be victims of their own success in dominating California’s politics. Their victories in statewide offices and all but a handful of congressional and legislative districts are virtually certain, thus eliminating the excitement and voting motivation that real contests would provide.
Presidential elections automatically generate such interest but California’s preordained elections for most state offices are off-putting, as the record-low turnout in 2014 underscored. Jerry Brown was cruising to a fourth term as governor against token opposition, there was no U.S. Senate contest and no visceral ballot measure to motivate Californians, particularly the young, to cast ballots.