By Using The Wrong Comparisons, California Hides Big Collapse In Turnout

Joe Mathews
Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)

The June election is finally over. But the misinformation about it goes on.

The latest problem involves headlines and reports that June turnout was a tick up from June elections 2014 and above turnout in June elections in 2010. By using these comparisons, election officials and media folks were able to tout progress in turnout and participation.

Unfortunately, there is no real progress. To the contrary, turnout is actually down. Because the points of comparison are the wrong ones.

People often have asked me why it matters so much that California still calls its June elections “primaries’ even though they aren’t. What’s the big deal? Well, the big deal is that when you don’t call things by their correct names, you make category errors—and fail to understand what is happening with your democracy. For example, you could celebrate an uptick in turnout that really shows a broader decline.

These days, June elections are actually general elections –the first round of two round general elections. California actually eliminated primaries at the beginning of the decade. Under the top two system, the June elections are the more important election, where voters enjoy the most choice among different candidates of different parties.

So it’s wrong to compare this June’s turnout to June elections in 2010 or previous years. If anything, we should be comparing top two June elections to the old November general elections in non-presidential years. And those comparisons show that turnout has all but collapsed.

Indeed, turnout among registered voters was well over 50 percent in general elections in California in 2010 and 2006. The turnout this year is 37 percent. In that difference lies a huge loss of political power and choice for voters.

There’s another problem with the comparisons we’re seeing published; they compare turnout among registered voters. The better way to chart turnout is to use the percentage of people who are eligible to vote age and citizenship and actually cast ballots. By that number, this year’s turnout was below 30 percent. In the 2010 general elections, by comparison, 45.9 percent of those eligible to vote cast ballots. In the 2006, general election, 41.2 percent of those eligible cast ballots.

The failure to use the right comparisons is telling us the wrong story. In the LA Times, Helen Hutchison, president of the League of Women Voters of California, was recently quoted as saying of this year’s turnout: “We’re making progress — slowly, but it’s progress.”

Actually, when you compare the new general election system under top two with the old one, you don’t see progress—you see a state that is deep in the hole of low participation.

And it needs to see itself more clearly before it can begin to dig itself out.

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