Voter Turnout in Supervisor Election Shows Democracy is Failing

As a former civics teacher and principal who championed the role of student government, the lack of voter turnout in last week’s Board of Supervisors election concerns me. The race to represent the residents of District 2, one of only five districts in Santa Clara County, was certainly well reported by this news outlet and others.

The issues brought up by the two candidates over the two-month campaign are all critical to the region. Over $1 million was spent on reaching voters who care about crime, education, government reform, pension liability and improving county services to residents.

And yet, only 20.77 percent of registered voters in District 2 participated in the election. This is the other story behind the victory of Supervisor-elect Cindy Chavez. The lack of participation in the election, made infinitely easier with mail-in ballots, is a phenomenon that challenges our very democracy. We can and must do better.

Please take note, superintendents, college presidents, college trustees, deans, school board members and principals. Your leadership within our state system of public schools, from preschool through grade 16, needs to become more focused on civic education to alter this perilous, undemocratic trajectory.

One definition of a democracy is a system of government based on the principle of majority decision-making; another is that we elect representatives of the people by the people.  Last Tuesday’s runoff for county supervisor is an example of the system failing.

In 2010, there were 1,139,951 eligible voters in Santa Clara County. However, only 68.3 percent (779,330) are registered to vote. In District 2, there are 117,716 registered voters, but only 24,450 participated in the Tuesday vote.

Only a fifth of registered voters participated at 20.77 percent, which was actually just 15.8 percent of eligible voters in District 2. That means Supervisor-elect Chavez, the winner of the plebiscite, received votes from only 11.4 percent of the registered voters and 8.7 percent of the eligible voters. The winning margin was nearly 11 percent of the total vote, yet the raw 2,674-vote discrepancy between Chavez and Alvarado was only 2.3 percent—1.7 percent of eligible voters—of the total registered.

Schools are the guardian of our democracy, and clearly their civic mission must be expanded and refocused. Only school leaders, policy makers and elected officials can make a renewed focus a reality. The new common core gives educators and leaders an opportunity to reboot civic education. Here are some things that can be done over time to grow participation that leads to more votes at the “ballot box”:

• Integrate English-Language Arts and History-Social Science to provide each student the experience with class readings/discussions on equality, fairness, representative democracy, due process, prejudice, social movements (e.g. Vietnam anti-war efforts of the 1960s-70s vs. The Tea Party anti-tax/government positions of 2010).
• Have students take positions they do not understand/agree with through writing, speaking and debating from a well-researched position. After a focused debate, engage the entire class in the discussion.
• Provide more time for discussions of current events locally, statewide nationally and internationally.
• Purchase new, innovative instructional content to support the effort in civic education. NewSchools Venture Fund, located in this county, just funded a new company called, a reading leveled, online news site for all students, which is purported to be common core aligned.
• Require graduation requirements at 8th grade, 12th grade and 16th grade that integrate extracurricular opportunities in the civic/governmental process.
• Expand the role of meaningful student governments in schools.

California’s elected leaders should study other states and regions with the highest voter participation rates. Why does Minnesota have the highest voter turnout—76.1 percent in 2012—for eight of the last nine midterm and presidential elections? Is it because what is emphasized in Minnesota schools? Is it because of the ease to register, even on the day of the election? Why did California’s voter turnout rank drop from 33 out of 50 in 2008’s presidential election to 41st—55.9 percent turnout in 2012—in 2012?

An engaged citizenry is essential for our democracy to flourish. The facts indicate we did not have an engaged electorate last week in District 2.

Joseph Di Salvo is a member of the Santa Clara County Office of Education’s Board of Trustees. He is a San Jose native.

Joseph Di Salvo is a member of the Santa Clara County Office of Education’s Board of Trustees. He is a San Jose native. His columns reflect his personal opinion.


  1. I actually took the time to vote, so don’t blame me when the inevitable Chavez corruption surfaces for all to see.

    I think there are several reasons that the election turnout was so low. Many people saw a choice between two liberal Democrats and figured out that there was not much difference between the candidates. Also, the timing of the election was poor, coming during the middle of summer during vacation season, when nobody’s paying attention.

    As Dan Pulcrano pointed out, “Chavez benefited from a compressed election cycle orchestrated by her allies on the Board of Supervisors over the objections of community members who appealed for an Aug. 20 election.” Shame on them for doing this.

    The county pissed away a million bucks on the two elections so that Chavez could get in and begin fleecing us. Expect another tax increase on the 2014 ballot and vote “no.”

  2. People don’t vote because they know it doesn’t matter. Shall Cindy Chavez or Teresa Alvarado implement the exact same set of policies? Who cares?!?

    Democracy is supposed to be about the people selecting their own way of life, not merely getting to select which local quasi-celebrity gets to hold the office while a pre-ordained set of policies are implemented without any regard to whom actually wins any given election.

  3. As ye sow, so shall ye reap.

    Contrary to you lament, Mr. DiSalvo, you Liberals have educated your flock all too well. You’ve taught them an entitlement attitude and convinced them that they deserve things without earning them. It doesn’t stop at food, housing, healthcare, electricity, transportation, and groceries. They carry this mindset right through to elections and feel they’re entitled to represeentation without even supplying the barest minimum of effort- voting.
    They’ve learned the progressive message perfectly and are behaving accordingly.

  4. 20.70% registered voters participation might be low…. but it beats hands down the voters participation in County Board of Education’s District 6. At least the Santa Clara Board of Supervisors opted for a special election vs. bypassing the voters via a board appointment.

  5. Right.  So how many times does the SJMN and this blog say the turnout for measure B was great?  NONE.  They only say that it passed “overwhelmingly”.  Newsflash: more people voted in the Supervisors election than for Measure B. Nothing “overwhelming” about only 9% of the population voting……

  6. Really ? you’re just noticing the lack of interest now. Didn’t the “Measure B ” Vote , show you the same thing? The Mayor and most reporting agencies like to tout Measure B was “Overwhelmingly ” approved . what they dont tell you is it was one of the lowest voter turnouts in San Jose history . for the record it was 70% of those that voted ( maybe something like 22% of the registered voters) . I think people are just disgusted with Politics in general here in San Jose . there is no Honesty , zero integrity , no one Truely has the best interests of the people in mind. I honestly believe that we should have a law stating the all measures be in plain and simple english ,meaning NO double negatives .people think they are voting one way and it ends up going the other way

    • According to the certification 35.85% of those registered voted on Measure B.  37.34% voted in the election though.  So a few voted, but didn’t vote on Measure B.  It won 95,716 to 42,964, or 69.02% to 30.98%.

      I think the questions that you have to ask in the runoff and the Measure B election are:

      1. If the turnouts had been higher, would the results have been different?

      2. If the Measure B election were held now, would the result be different?

      Personally I think the answer is NO and NO.

      • You are more than likely correct . What bothers me , is that most residents couldn’t careless about what going on in San Jose , even though “Voting” affects everything . Politicians never tell the truth and voters should not be afraid of doing their own research rather than blindly following Politicians. things will never get better if people dont get involved or educated to things going on around them

  7. Why would you say that mail-in ballots contribute to the lack of participation in the election?  It is the other way around:  they increase participation because they are votes.

    • I object to the practice of mail-in voting because it sabotages the electoral system by having many thousands of ballots (or millions, as the case may be) cast prior to the end of the election itself.  If there is a significant development towards the end of the election, many voters are already locked into supporting a candidate who is not the one they might choose to support on Election Day.  And almost universally, that sort of electoral inertia is a boon to the dominant political clique/“machine.”

      • The “dominant political clique” has not seen fit to give people a day off for voting or engage in any meaningful outreach to those without transportation to the polls.  If you get rid of mail-in voting you will lose many voters who are elderly, students, military, those with young children or multiple jobs, those who travel for a living, etc. I will take your theoretical “inertia” over real world disenfranchisement any day.

        • Its not “theoretical.”  On December 6th, 2005, in California’s 48th Congressional District Special Election Run-Off, Jim Gilchrist, the nominee of the American Independent Party, received more votes than any other candidate, yet he was relegated to just 3rd place overall (with 25.5 percent of the vote), because of all the so-called “absentee” voters who cast their ballot before they were even made aware of his candidacy by the dominant press and its two-party narrative.  There hasn’t been a “third” party nominee elected to Congress in all of the USA in what – a century? – and yet it would have presumably happened, had not absentee voting been allowed to corrupt that result, and reinforce the powers of the ruling establishment (a Republican, John Campbell, serving as their standard bearer in this instance).

          Perhaps 5-10 percent of “absentee” voters have a bona fide need to vote in that manner ie., because they are actually located away from home at the time of the election, or are disabled (or otherwise unable to travel a few hundred yards to their local polling station).  There is no reason a rational exception couldn’t be made for such persons (hence your argument is null and void).

        • Democratic elections should be inclusive and allow all who are eligible to vote.  To arbitrarily exclude people because one doesn’t think their excuse is good enough is no better than the old fashion poll tax.  And, third party or not, to slice up the eligible electorate until Mr. Gilchrist is allowed to win is definitely not democratic.

  8. It’s enjoyable to see you crunch numbers, but isn’t the role of the County Board of Education a little more relevant at this time?  I have reference to the snarky editorial printed by the Mercury News on Aug. 26.  I don’t believe you have commented on this situation yet.  Even so, we would still need an update about what is going on there.

    The Merc characterized the new county superintendent as a carpetbagger from Texas, even though he received all his degrees from California universities, and the snotty tone of the editorial suggested that someone’s BFF at the Merc was upset because the BFF might be slated to leave the agency…it was that petty, like a schoolyard bickering match between fifth graders.  Maybe Marsha or Sharon were having a bad day, but the editorial cascaded as an ugly example of the Merc’s meddling to just blatantly start a campaign to oust the third county superintendent in a row.

    The Merc ran a campaign against a women superintendent because she supposedly was too touchy-feely, and then they certainly provided no support for the most recent superintendent.  He was good to go with a big “L” on his forehead, but this turn-over has to stop.

    Aren’t you going to get in the trenches and protect your candidate for superintendent?  Why are you silent when the Merc editorial was so petty, childlike, and mean?

    Is there a campaign to oust him in a petty display of jealousy?  My friends and I follow the County Office of Education closely, and we have yet to hear of any negative things out in the real world.  As a leader on the board, isn’t it your job to calm the waters?  Someone needs to slap the wrist of the keyboard terror who distributes anonymous hate speech against an office that is succeeding.  What about it?

    Run your own shop before castigating voters in District 2.  They don’t deserve you.

  9. Joe, since you’re an advocate of Common Core, can you explain how it is that Common Core-educated children are failing the higher performance expectations of Common Core?

    Also, can you explain how the ‘fuzzy math’ techniques of Common Core are an improvement over tried-and-true methods which served kids for, literally hundreds – if not thousands – of years?

  10. I wouldn’t say lack of participation in this “Special Election” shows democracy is failing. This vote showed that most of District 2 believes we are just paying Supervisor Chavez’s salary until the next election. Neither of the candidates showed true promise or leadership to provide real change within the community. Santa Clara invested hundreds of thousands of dollars just have this Supervisor-approved election. Staying with the money game, Supervisor Chavez and Candidate Alvarado competed in one of the most expensive elections for a Supervisor. I guess they learn from the top, the Obama-Romney battle of 2012 both spent well over $900,000,000. Correlation or Coincidence money wins?

    Those are Merriam-Webster definitions to describe a democracy. To me, Democracy is a philosophy. Involving education should help, but what are the standards of teaching these programs? Or, who sets the standards? Democracy is not failing, it’s transforming. The founding fathers didn’t allow all people to vote, even today there is a law saying you have to be 18 to have your voice heard. In the big picture, an important piece to remember is that the majority of people actually have the opportunity to vote and use their voice, if they decide to choose.

    Americans are in a time when their opinions on certain issues define their vision of the “American Dream.” Participation in an election where neither candidate made a connection to the masses of District 2 should not alarm the people. If someone decides not to vote, that’s their unalienable right. The lack of ‘special’ in the “Special Election” is more concerning than the participation.