The Retro Election? Fewest Votes for California Governor Since 1978

Workers at the San Francisco Department of Elections sort stacks of vote-by-mail ballots by precinct during a past election. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Workers at the San Francisco Department of Elections sort stacks of vote-by-mail ballots by precinct during a past election. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images) (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

It’s sobering to consider how many things have changed since the last time so few votes were cast in the race for governor of California: The state’s population was 40 percent smaller. Donna Summer had the No. 1 song on the charts. Jerry Brown handily won re-election as governor.

Actually, that last one is pretty much the same as it was 36 years ago, which brings us back to the reality of what happened on Nov. 4.

The final tally from elections officials is that 7,317,581 votes were cast in the two-man race between Brown and GOP challenger Neel Kashkari. Brown won 60 percent of those votes, the most lopsided gubernatorial contest since 1986. It was also, it seems, the least inspiring in more than a generation.

State elections data show last month’s gubernatorial election saw fewer votes cast than in the previous eight quadrennial contests. Only 1978’s race between Brown and Republican Evelle Younger saw fewer total votes cast (6,922,378) than did 2014.

Gov. Jerry Brown speaks during a get-out-the-vote rally at the Alameda County Democratic Party headquarters on October 27, 2014 . (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Gov. Jerry Brown speaks during a get-out-the-vote rally at Alameda County Democratic Party headquarters on Oct. 27, 2014 . (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

This year’s race for governor, of course, was only part of a much larger gloomy headline: the lowest turnout for any California gubernatorial election in history — ballots cast by just 42.2 percent of the state’s 17.8 million registered voters.

There’s been some criticism in political circles over the past few weeks that the lackluster contest between Brown and Kashkari may hold some of the blame, but it’s unlikely we’ll ever have a definitive answer as to why so many voters took a pass this fall.

But the gubernatorial numbers alone are striking when compared with previous elections. In 2010, more than 10 million votes were cast in the race for governor; and even the previous record holder for the most ho-hum race, the 2002 re-election of Gov. Gray Davis, drew some 450,000 more votes than the 2014 gubernatorial matchup.

As we pointed out just after the election, the real legacy of the tepid turnout is the amazingly new low threshold for getting an initiative or referendum on the 2016 and 2018 ballot — a threshold that by law is set by the total number of votes cast for governor.

We took a closer look at that phenomenon on Thursday morning’s edition of The California Report.

Political consultants believe it will dramatically drive down the cost of using paid signature gatherers to qualify an initiative — a new bargain of perhaps less than $1 million, and a possible impetus for a frenzy of initiatives over the next two election cycles.

Perhaps the lasting question is whether those initiative thresholds, set in the state constitution by the 1911 effort that created the state’s direct democracy system, need another look when it comes to the 21st century and beyond.

Just compare the relative impact of the 1978 and 2014 gubernatorial elections on California’s initiative process.

For the 1980 and 1982 election cycles, the threshold to qualify an initiative — 346,119 voter signatures — represented about 3.4 percent of the state’s registered voters.

For the 2016 and 2018 election cycles, the threshold to qualify an initiative — what we think will be 365,879 voter signatures — will represent just 2 percent of registered voters. And if you look at the state’s eligible electorate, a group that’s vastly larger than it was in 1978, it’s clear that there’s about to be a big boost of power for a relatively small number of Californians in forcing a statewide vote on a proposal of their choosing.

Yes, a lot has changed since 1978. But electorally speaking, the next four years may feel like a blast from the past.

  • Mary Murphy

    I was appointed to a statewide office by Jerry Brown in 2011. Although I felt honored to receive that appointment, and believed he believed in the mission of my agency, I resigned in May 2014 after 3 years of *extreme* overwork (karoshi) because of his ridiculous “Do More With Less” philosophy–which was in reality just an election-year austerity program for valuable state agencies that had already suffered terribly under Arnold Schwarzenegger’s (and Grover Norquist’s) policies of *STARVING* even the most effective (or potentially effective) government agencies, under which I had no choice but to work 12 to 15 hours a day, 7 days a week, for three years, to do the job I was appointed to do. I would add that several other women of a certain age in prominent roles in his administration were unceremoniously dumped by him before I left, for the grievous sin of trying to promote the progressive missions of their agencies, while he systematically elevated young men who look just like him to very powerful roles who would be more inclined blindly to do his bidding.

    I did not vote for him in the recent election, and never will. (I have been a California resident most of my life but lived out of state when he was elected to his first and second terms. I would have voted for him back then, but he is not the compassionate human being he seemed to be in those days.) He tries to pass as a progressive but is just another craven politician who craves power above all.

    One of the key issues on which we differed while I was in office was the value of “direct democracy,” especially with respect to the so-called “reform” of public employee pensions. If the California initiative process were true to that principle, I’d be all for it. But it is not. It is there for the 1% to manipulate in their interests. Wall Street’s interest in the abolition of defined benefit pension plans is obvious: having billions of dollars of public employees’ hard earned money in 401(k) plans gives them a lot of money to gamble with–their favorite past-time. A million bucks is still a lot of money for signatures for a grass roots initiative. It’s a pittance for the powerful, monied interests who will control our initiative process until it is reformed. I, for one, am very glad to see that Jerry Brown is not aspiring to higher office. I hope he spends the next four years searching his soul to rediscover the compassion many of us believed he once harbored in his soul …

  • annjohns

    Again I say, why vote when the media has made clear the winner before the campaign begins and all the way through the cycle? Its you in the media who are undermining democracy! Debates are the clearest way for voters to evaluate candidates. The media should call them and invite the candidates. They can decide if they will attend. There should have been a debate for State Superintendent as well.

    • A reminder, if I may: KQED sponsored, and I moderated, the only gubernatorial debate this year. The superintendent candidates did debate this election season. Some other candidates chose not to debate, but KQED’s Forum invited and interviewed all the candidates for statewide office except for Gov. Brown. And we made it clear when those candidates refused to be on with each other. Your frustration is understandable, but I’m not sure I understand how the news media has failed when it comes to debates.


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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