Turning the Tide of Turnout

The county projects a pathetically low turnout for tomorrow’s gubernatorial primary election—despite one unique effort. But based on the numbers I’m looking at, it’s going to be even worse in Santa Clara County than our Registrar of Voters (ROV) predicts, particularly here in San Jose.

Over the past three gubernatorial primaries, the county has experienced steadily increasing voter turnout, rising from 34 percent in 2002 to 37 percent in 2006—the last open race for San Jose mayor. Turnout peaked at 43percent in 2010. This year, we’ll be lucky to hit 30 percent. Vote-by-mail turnout through Sunday night was just under 20 percent. Even if that doubles by Tuesday night, paltry precinct turnout won’t be enough for us to hit the Registrar’s rosy projection of 35 percent overall. And San Jose is especially lagging.

Despite a wide open race for mayor, open seats in three council districts and one incumbent facing a serious challenge, San Jose turnout is just below the county rate. Among the council districts with competitive races, only the 7th District is voting at a significantly higher clip than the city or county as a whole. (This exception is surprising given that none of the local races for federal or state offices overlap with District 7, and there is far less money being spent there than in other districts.)

What does this mean? Well, for political hacks like myself, it means the win numbers we calculated back in December aren’t worth the Google docs we’ve been using to track them. It means that it should take about 3,000 votes to make the runoff in any of the five council races, which in turn means campaign staffs have wasted precious time and resources contacting thousands of “likely” voters who just aren’t showing up. It also means the two mayoral candidates we’ll have to choose from in November will be determined on Tuesday by a little more than one tenth of the city.

Shannon Bushey, the county ROV, is doing her best to rally the troops, including a color ¼-sheet ad in Sunday's Mercury News next to the article by Mike Rosenberg (who's worth a Twitter follow). But realistically, there’s nothing she can do to turn the tide. The problem is one of apathy, not awareness. The five major mayoral campaigns have raised and spent a combined $2 million. Dozens of council candidates have spent a total of roughly $500,000. That’s not to mention independent expenditures dumping another $1 million into the various races. And don’t forget overlapping races in the 17th Congressional, 10th State Senate, and 25th and 28th Assembly districts—each with their own GOTV (get-out-the-vote) efforts.

In other words, candidates and campaigns across the Valley of Heart’s Delight are doing all that they can to spur turnout. Field managers are pulling their hair out while you’re reading this, staring into an abyss of data, looking for votes in every nook and cranny of the sortable demographics, hoping to find a precinct ripe with supporters to plug into tonight’s GOTV phone bank call list.

Even consultants are getting into the act down the final stretch. I must have hit over 150 doors this weekend, and my bum knee is killing me, but it gives me a better angle than most in my profession of the “word on the street.” This is something that gets lost in the mail plans and the social media ads and the kitchen cabinet meetings filled with political insiders, who have virtually no concept of how political “outsiders” think.

For four to six weeks, voters are exposed to the seedy underbelly of politics: ad hominem attacks; smear campaigns; anonymous blogs; Leland Yee.

Meanwhile, nobody’s talking about the actual issues affecting our community. And when the campaign ends, and the policymaking begins, much of the local media will go back to covering gang violence and accidental deaths and any other stories they can find to scare people into staying locked in their homes all day and night, watching TV. And the people we elect will have carte blanche to do and say whatever they like, because the public has no clue what is going on and no idea how to find out.

Given all that, it’s no surprise that voters aren’t turning out, and it’s only going to get worse. Seniors aged 65 and up account for nearly half the local voters who have submitted ballots thus far. Meanwhile, voters age 18-34 represent less than 10 percent. This should frighten any political strategist. Millennials are the largest generation in American history. But the young voters energized by Obama in 2008 have been showing up at lower clips ever since. If this trend continues as our seniors pass on, what kind of electorate will we have left?

The path forward is clear and two-pronged: We need to reshape our politics around honest, ethical and inspiring messaging; and we must do a better job of educating our youth on the principles of civic engagement. The only variable is our willingness to come together as a community and make it happen.


  1. Thank you Peter. Great job!

    When I think about how many men/women of all ages/races fought and died for our right to vote, this just sickens me.

    Parents need to teach their children the history of voting rights, and lead by example! PLEASE VOTE JUNE 3rd, no matter WHO you vote for, just VOTE!

  2. > The county projects a pathetically low turnout for tomorrow’s gubernatorial primary election . . .

    Well, DUH!!!

    It’s a one party political culture. Votes don’t change anything. Why would anyone bother to vote?

    The California masses have been so indoctrinated in hunter-gatherer tribalism, that elections are nothing more than periodic tribal censuses.

    The black tribe votes for the black candidate.
    The woman tribe votes for the woman candidate.
    The gay tribe votes for the gay candidate.
    The “fairness” tribe votes for stealing from everyone else.

    The winning tribes loot the villages and steal the women of the “other” tribes.

    “Democratic” politics is very primitive.

  3. The Registrar predicts low turnouts for voters, yet keeps advertising for more poll workers. Some polling places may see fewer than two dozen voters all day. Private enterprise would close down non-performing locations and consolidate them with others.

  4. I would be interested to see how the increasing number of people electing to not have their sample ballots mailed to them affect voter turnout. My paper sample ballot is what reminds me an election is coming up, so I wonder if those people who elect to go paperless voted or if it affected their voting (as in, did they always vote in every election before and start missing them after?).

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