A nail-biter of an election is the pièce de résistance in political reporting, a dramatic finish that can leave everyone on the edge of their seats. But 2014’s close contests are also a bit of a distraction from the real news: the apparent nadir, in some California communities, of representative democracy.

Case in point: the surprise defeat of an incumbent Los Angeles assemblyman by 467 votes, a stunning upset that now has the political world focused on musings about the order of names on the ballot or alleged chicanery on the part of Republicans seeking to influence a Democrat versus Democrat contest.

The real story, though, is not how the incumbent lost … but how few of his constituents even bothered to vote. And even then, it’s part of a larger story, about how several California lawmakers — now packing their bags for Sacramento or Washington, D.C. — were chosen by incredibly small slices of the electorate.

The abysmal turnout of California voters in the Nov. 4 elections was widely predicted. The final numbers won’t be available for a few more days, but the statewide vote appears to reflect a turnout of about 42 percent, a new record for lowest turnout in a California gubernatorial election.

But a deeper dive into the numbers finds a much lower percentage of votes — in some cases less than half of that statewide turnout — cast in several races for the California Legislature and the U.S. House of Representatives.

Let’s go back to that Los Angeles race for the state’s 39th Assembly District, where freshman incumbent Assemblyman Raul Bocanegra (D-Pacoima) conceded defeat on Monday to fellow Democrat Patty Lopez, a local activist whose campaign was well under the political universe’s radar until the votes started to be tallied on Election Night.

“While the vote tally is incredibly close,” said a statement from Bocanegra on Monday evening, “it is clear that my opponent will be victorious by the narrowest of margins.”

Handful of Voters Decide Race

The real killer, though, was overall turnout.  The final tally by Los Angeles County elections officials shows only 45,033 votes were cast in the Bocanegra versus Lopez race. That’s only 22 percent of all registered voters in the San Fernando Valley district.

Even worse: Lopez will take the oath of office on Dec. 1 in Sacramento with the backing of just 22,750 voters — that’s slightly less than 5 percent of all the people who live in her Los Angeles County district (using census data compiled during the 2011 redrawing of political districts).

“I think we have to take a long, honest look at our voting process and better understand why so many people are choosing not to participate,” said Kim Alexander, president of the nonpartisan California Voter Foundation.

“This is not good for the health of our civil society. It’s in everybody’s interest to maximize voter participation and give all the people in our state a path to make themselves heard.”

In state Assembly districts around Los Angeles, turnout on Nov. 4 hovered around 20 percent. (Diagram: Citizen's Redistricting Commission)
In state Assembly districts around Los Angeles, turnout on Nov. 4 hovered around 20 percent. (Diagram: Citizen’s Redistricting Commission)

A district-by-district analysis reveals a high concentration of low turnout races in and around Los Angeles.  Eleven of the county’s Assembly districts had races where fewer than 27 percent of the registered votes were cast on Election Day.  Three races — for the 53rd, 63rd and 64th Assembly districts — all saw turnout around 21 percent, even lower than the Bocanegra-Lopez contest in the northern San Fernando Valley.

A few congressional races in the L.A. area fared just as badly.  Only 26 percent of registered voters cast a ballot in a race won by incumbent U.S. Rep. Grace Napolitano (D-Norwalk). Her 50,353 votes represent about 8 percent of the constituents in California’s 32nd Congressional District.  Even fewer voters elected her colleague, U.S. Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Los Angeles), to an 11th term on Capitol Hill.

Low Turnout Up North

But lest you think the only dismal voting numbers were in L.A. legislative and congressional districts, let’s move the map northward. In another Election Night shocker, veteran U.S. Rep. Jim Costa (D-Fresno) barely held onto his post representing California’s 16th Congressional District. Votes cast: about 26 percent of the registered electorate.

Some will argue that the weak turnout reflects races that weren’t competitive, or ones where the two candidates weren’t well known. But that’s not a complete explanation.

Move up to some Northern California races where the candidates were well known, and ones where the competition was fierce this election season, and again … the data show anemic turnout.  In Sacramento, a Democrat versus Democrat race for the 7th Assembly District featured two well-known members of the City Council, Kevin McCarty and Steve Cohn.  Only 38 percent of voters in the district cast a ballot in the race, won by McCarty.

And in one of 2014’s nastiest, and most costly, state Senate races — pitting two incumbent assemblymen against each other in the Sacramento region — there was yet more voter apathy. Millions of dollars in outside spending helped boost the winning campaign of Richard Pan against fellow Democrat Roger Dickinson. Turnout in the hotly contested 6th state Senate district? Forty-one percent … pretty much the statewide average.

There’s at least some hint that the voter apathy was more profound in Democratic-leaning legislative and congressional districts, which lines up with the sense that Republicans cast a disproportionately larger number of votes on Nov. 4.

“Our representative form of government depends on voter participation and engagement,” said Dean Logan, registrar of voters in Los Angeles County.  “The low turnout in the November election is concerning.”

Logan has been leading an effort to try and figure out the secret ingredient to getting more voters to cast ballots, especially young voters.  But it won’t be easy.  And legislative or congressional contests, so-called down-ticket races, are especially hard ones for inspiring turnout.  Voters often skip these races, which is counted as an “under vote,” a ballot that leaves some races blank.

That may be easier to do in 2016, when a presidential contest will no doubt draw more voters to the polls.  Four years ago, 56 percent of voters in the 39th Assembly District cast a ballot, more than double the number that showed up this time as 2012’s winner, Raul Bocanegra, is now 2014’s loser.

  • Richard Winger

    California voters were the only voters in the nation in November 2014 who were forced to either vote for a Democrat or a Republican for all the statewide offices, or not vote at all. The general election is for all voters, yet California’s top-two system, which went into effect in 2011, excludes voters who want to vote for minor party and independent candidates. Proposition 14 should be repealed. We could replace it with a semi-closed primary, as we had 2001-2010, or we could just abolish the primary and let everyone run in November, which is what Louisiana does. That way, no candidate is excluded from the general election season. Louisiana holds a run-off in December for races in which no one got 50%, but a better way would be to use Ranked-Choice Voting in November, ending the need for a December run-off.

    • Interesting… not a single mention of Prop 14 in this article.

      • There’s a simple reason I don’t mention Prop 14: the point of my piece is simply that turnout was incredibly low… not that there is/was a definitive reason for it. Richard’s Prop 14 critique is an interesting one, and one that he’s made to me before. Others here have raised the lack of exciting races or ballot measure fights. I don’t think there’s much I can tell you with the election just a few weeks in the rear view mirror about why any of this happened. All we know for sure, right now, is that it happened. Thanks, all, for the comments! –JM

  • Two things drive turnout: interesting contests, and more choices.

    For example, in San Francisco 53% (231,214) of the registered voters (436,019) cast a ballot because they had interesting ballot measures. In fact, more people voted (one way or another) on a measure to raise the minimum wage (224,914) than marked their ballot for the Governor’s race (223,187).

    In Oakland, 47.4% of the registered voters cast a ballot in a Mayor’s race that had at least 7 “serious” candidates on the ballot (that is, candidates who pulled in more than 2% of the vote). Of course, Oakland uses ranked choice voting (RCV) for its elections and that allows more candidates to be on the ballot in November than the old top-two runoff system did. RCV also reduces the prevalence of turnout-depressing negative campaigning. That 47.4% Oakland turnout was higher than Alameda County’s overall turnout of 45.0%, as well as the statewide average of 42.2%.

    With a lackluster top-of-the-ticket race, there needed to be a more interesting down-ticket contest to attract people to vote. If you didn’t have one, you had low turnout.

    Also, top-two has eliminated minor parties from the November ballot, reducing the incentive for people attracted to them or dissatisfied with the major parties to cast a ballot. Furthermore, it eliminated the write-in space, so people who would otherwise cast a protest vote for “Mickey Mouse” or “Lizard People” can’t even do that.

    If you want turnout to go up, we need to eliminate top-two so people have more choices in November. Having a “blanket general” election in November, using ranked choice voting with all the candidates listed, or at least a November RCV runoff of the top-four from June, would be even better.

    –Steve Chessin, President
    Californians for Electoral Reform
    http://www.cfer.org

  • annjohns

    Let’s see….for nearly a year the media has decreed that the governor’s race was a certainty. No need for public debates (oh yeah, one two months before the election and competing with the first televised football game of the season), no in depth analysis of policy, no room in editorial pages for point counterpoint, just the (Democratic) party line in every paper of record across the state. Don’t dare to complain when you, the media, have completely lost any hint of real journalistic integrity in your reporting. Why vote when the outcome is essentially a forgone conclusion.

    • I’m not sure I understand your criticism of the press. And as the person who helped organize the only gubernatorial debate (your concern about the timing is fair but would have been the same had we chosen that weekend, for example)… I can tell you that we always believed at least some debate was/is better than no debate at all. But then again, the Brown/Kashkari debate isn’t really (I think) the focus of your comment. Right?

      • annjohns

        Really? From the start the media REPORTED that Kashkarian didn’t have a prayer. Why is it up to the anointed Brown to determine if a debate takes place? Call the debate and if he’s a no show so what? Allow California voters to hear a candidate answer questions and lay out policy at a forum rather than through campaign commercials. Isn’t that what the press is always bloviating over? Campaign spending is poisoning our system? It’s actually all a game to the press and the voters really don’t want to play any more.

        • I certainly understand your frustration with the ability of candidates to get their issues across, and I’d only respond by saying that this news organization tried hard to present Mr. Kashkari’s positions and his qualifications in as comprehensive way as we could. Also, I interviewed Mr. Kashkari for a half hour, uninterrupted, on KQED’s Forum in October; Gov. Brown never took us up on the offer to appear. An hourlong debate with the so-called “empty chair” would be, frankly, a stunt. One last thought: I can’t speak for other political journalists, but I don’t consider the coverage of politics and government to be a “game.” The decisions made in Sacramento and in local governments across California impact the lives of millions — the quality of education, the protections of public safety, the appropriateness of taxation and regulation. Huge issues, hugely important, and not a game to folks like me.

  • David Cary

    Our system of government lacks credibility and legitimacy. As more and more people recognize this, the facade continues to crumble.

    Some day we’ll upgrade to a democracy.

    • Joan Strasser

      Repeal Prop 14 which eliminates all but the “top two” from the November ballot. Institute Ranked Choice Voting, as is now used in San Francisco, Berkeley, Oakland and San Leandro in order to give people more choice and eliminate negative campaigning, and ultimately institute Proportional Representation, by creating larger districts for the state government which would allow more voters to have their views represented in Sacramento. Proportional Representation in some form is used an almost all the world’s democracies. If you are not familiar with this term, please google it as soon as you have a free moment. And KQED- please bring up this most important topic in more of your programming. We’ll never have it until the public has become familiar with this voting system.

  • calwatch

    To be fair, the CVAP (citizen voting age population) of assembly district 39 is much lower than the statewide average, as a result of a disproportionately young, immigrant population. Bocanegra failed to do basic tasks like purchase the ballot statement and send flyers to high propensity voters indicating his accomplishments. Patty Lopez, although she has a steep learning curve ahead of her, won’t make the same mistake.

    • Calwatch, you’re right about the CVAP issues. But look at 2008, and you’ll see the Bocanegra-Alarcon race drew votes from more than half the 39th’s registered voters. It’s more than just demographics…

      • Was the 2008 39th the same as the 2014 39th? Redistricting shifted the lines and that could have changed the demographics.

        • Steve, good catch. I actually meant to type “2012” and the reference is to the 2012 election in the district… post-redistricting… not 2008. (My fault for weighing in with a late night posting!)

  • Who’d have thought! In the jungle, nobody bothers to vote.
    By the way, where is Maldonado now? Back in mom’s basement eating bananas.

  • hcat

    I fear the mentality of the Democrats’ main constituencies is royalist, and that they think only the Presidency matters. So if there’s no President on the ballot, they lose interest.

Author

John Myers

John Myers is Senior Editor of KQED's new California Politics and Government Desk.  A veteran of almost two decades of political coverage, he was KQED's longest serving  statehouse bureau chief and recently was political editor for Sacramento's ABC affiliate, News10 (KXTV). John was moderator of the only 2014 gubernatorial debate, and  was named by The Washington Post to two "Best Of" lists: the 2015 list of top state politics reporters and 2014's list of America's most influential statehouse reporters.

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