In summary

Imperial County’s 68 percent registered voter turnout in November hid a surprising fact: the highest number of people voted in the history of the county. Here’s a look behind the numbers.

Low voter turnout in one of the state’s poorest counties hides hopeful signals that voters are more engaged in civic life than the raw numbers imply.

That’s how community leaders see it in Imperial County, next to the border with Mexico.

Imperial County’s turnout of registered voters reached 68% in the 2020 presidential election, the lowest among California’s 58 counties. And that’s in a high drama presidential election year in which statewide turnout reached 81 percent, a number not seen since 1976 during the leisure suit  era.

But there’s a bright side: about 8,500 more people voted in Imperial County than four years ago.

“Even though the turnout was low, the highest number of people voted in the election in the county’s history,” said Luis Flores Jr., co-founder of the Imperial Valley Equity and Justice Coalition.

Equally positive: the percentage of the voter eligible population in the county who cast ballots, also known as eligible turnout, rose from 50 percent in 2016 to 57 percent in 2020. 

“It’s low, but it shot up seven percentage points,” said Thad Kousser, University of California at San Diego political science professor. As elsewhere, the galvanizing nature of the election and the state’s decision to send everyone a mail ballot increased eligible voter turnout, he said.

He added that political scientists find eligible voter turnout to be more meaningful than registered voter turnout.  

Socioeconomic factors of low income and less education — Imperial County is one of the poorest counties in California —  create barriers to voting, Kousser said. 

According to census data, median household income in the county last year was $48,472, while 72% of the population had a high school education or higher, but less than two out of ten had a college degree. Spanish is spoken in three quarters of the homes.

Imperial County civic leaders acknowledged that low income is a persistent factor for the region, but say other factors such as a smaller population play into low turnout.

“You can get a skewed view when you look at statistics,” said El Centro Mayor Cheryl Viegas-Walker. “Because we are such a low population county, a few people can make such a difference.”

Imperial County has a population of about 181,000. El Centro, the county seat, has about 46,000 residents.

The lowest turnout precinct in the county that has more than 1,000 registered voters is in El Centro. The precinct is composed of older neighborhoods, two mobile home parks, and a newer apartment complex, and it is bordered by a major rail line. Census data for El Centro is in line with the county as a whole.

The precinct has 1,444 registered voters, but only 816 voted — a 57% turnout of registered voters.

“If you wanted to be at 62%, that’s only another 70 people,” the mayor said.

“Because we are such a low population county, a few people can make such a difference.”

Cheryl Viegas-Walker, EL CENTRO MAYOR

Grassroots activists said the coronavirus crisis kept some people at home instead of out organizing, and they lack funds to get voters registered and to the polls.

“We are an underserved, underfunded area,” said Luis Olmedo, executive director of the Comite Civico del Valle, which did bilingual community education and outreach to areas likely to be undercounted in the census.

Blake Miles, former chair of the Imperial Valley Republican Party, said voter turnout figures in the county would be higher if voter rolls were kept up to date.

“There’s people who have moved or they’re dead and gone,” he said. “When I’ve gone door to door, they say ‘he’s been dead for five years.’”

A Democratic party leader said she’s happy with the voter turnout.

“The overall turnout numbers for Imperial County were impressive,” said Annette Gonzalez-Buttner, chairwoman of the Imperial County Democratic Central Committee. “While our precincts that have a higher percentage of renters were slightly below the rates of precincts that have more live-in homeowners, even these lower frequency voters well exceeded 60% turnout. I expect the Democratic turnout to approach 70 percent when the final data is released.”

County spokeswoman Linsey Dale said it’s incorrect to ascribe low turnout to out-of-date voter rolls. Rosters are kept current based on information about deaths and address changes from the Secretary of State’s office. The elections department also marks voters as inactive based on returned undeliverable mail and reports from voters that they have moved out of the county.

Despite overall low turnout, the Calexico City Council election saw three new faces elected, and an appointed member elected for the first time.

“It did seem like a kind of political energy that is about discontent with the way things were,” said Flores, the activist. “That gives me some optimism.”

Votebeat is a national media collaboration about the administration and integrity of, and issues regarding, the unprecedented 2020 election. In California, CalMatters is hosting the collaboration with the Fresno Bee, the Long Beach Post and the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.

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Lewis is a Votebeat reporter covering election integrity. He lives in Visalia in the San Joaquin Valley. For 22 years, he was a reporter at The Fresno Bee covering agriculture, water, environment, police,...