votingConsider this the official launch of the 2014 election season in California.

Election officials in all 58 counties begin sending out vote-by-mail ballots on Monday and will continue to do so for the next three weeks. The final day for Californians to register to vote in the June 3 election is May 19.

As ballots start arriving in mailboxes, candidates and campaigns start trying to answer the single most important question: Which voters will actually show up?

History is a pretty good guide that voter turnout is going to be low. State elections records show that since 1984, only twice has a majority of registered California voters cast a primary election ballot … and both of those years (2000 and 2008) featured closely watched, intense presidential campaigns.

Take those two years out, and the historical primary election turnout in California is a dismal 39 percent. And in the last statewide primary held during a non-presidential year, only 33 percent of registered voters cast a ballot. For political insiders, this means tailoring campaigns not necessarily to the widest audience, but to whom it’s assumed will show up.

And nowhere is that seen more clearly right now than in the race for governor.

After months of promoting his moderate stance on some political issues and his desire to bring new voters to the California Republican Party, GOP newcomer Neel Kashkari has launched a major new offensive labeling himself as a “conservative.” He’s also now created a website that accuses his Tea Party-favored opponent, Assemblyman Tim Donnelly, R-San Bernardino County, of being not conservative enough.

Kashkari, a former U.S. Treasury official who helped craft the federal government’s massive bank bailout in 2008, has until now spent most of his time emphasizing issues that could possibly attract moderate, middle-of-the-road voters. In particular, he has pledged a new focus on poverty and income inequality, and bashed Gov. Jerry Brown and others for not doing enough on the issue, one that usually resonates with Democrats and independents.

Trouble is, Kashkari’s poll numbers hardly budged. In the most recent statewide poll, he continued to trail Donnelly by a wide margin, though most California Republicans tell pollsters they remain undecided.

(A sidenote: How has Donnelly done it? It’s certainly not with money. Campaign finance records show he has only raised about $229,000 in 2014, less than Kashkari raised in the month of April alone. The answer may lie in news coverage. Democrats point to a private analysis of TV and radio news stories, so-called earned media, that shows Donnelly has had a whopping four times the amount of media coverage Kashkari has gotten.)

Other campaigns also must decide whether enough persuadable voters — those who don’t necessarily vote a party or ideological line — will show up for the June race. This is the first year in which California’s top-two primary system (only the top two vote-getters, regardless of party, advance to the general election November) will be used in races for statewide office.

Supporters of the new primary rules have long hoped that breaking apart the closed, partisan primary system would increase interest in elections and campaigns.

“Reform efforts to increase turnout may not prove particularly effective,” says Eric McGhee, a researcher at the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California and one of the state’s leading analysts of electoral trends.

But, as McGhee notes in his new report on the top-two primary system, more independent voters are expected as they learn the rules that allow them to cast votes for any candidate from any party.

Still, elections are the most intense when some race or issue fuels the debate. Presidential elections do that every four years. Ballot measures in California also help fuel voter turnout. But that’s another blow to this June election and those in years to come: Propositions placed before voters via the initiative process have been banned from all but November ballots. In 2011, Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law a shift in initiatives — debatable as to whether it was good government or clever politics — that has left June elections with only low-profile bonds and ballot measures placed there by the Legislature.

The bottom line: For one reason or another, most of you probably won’t vote in the election being held in four weeks’ time. And because studies show the most reliable voters are older, less ethnically diverse and more politically conservative … expect candidates to adjust accordingly.


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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