The missing voters

In a new column appearing in the Appeal Democrat, Thomas D. Elias takes me to task for suggesting, on this blog and at speaking events around the state, that the low turnout at the mega-millions June primary election was a signal of voter discontent with California’s broken government and politics. “'Voters have given up on believing in democracy under California’s current electoral system,’ moaned Mark Paul,” he quotes me as saying. It just isn’t so, Elias contends.

Sorry, Tom, but you couldn’t be more wrong. The only thing that makes me moan is people who hold themselves out as journalists and pundits but who can’t be bothered to check the facts.

Anyone with a whit of curiosity, five minutes of time, and an Internet connection could find the data in the chart below, which I drew from the official figures available on the California Secretary of State’s website.


It’s hard to see how any fair-minded person looking at the trend of voter turnout in gubernatorial years can conclude that the voter indifference in the June primary was an aberration, the result of having a contest only in the Republican race for governor. Voter turnout in the non-presidential years when California elects its governor and other statewide constitutional officers has plummeted over the last half century—by around 40 percent in primaries and about 30 percent in general elections. Although there has been some drop in voter participation in presidential elections, reflecting the new partisan reality that California hasn’t been in play in the last four national elections, the decline is not nearly as sharp and turnout has been been nearly level for the last three decades.

Yes, more people will cast votes in the November 2 general election because more people always vote in the general election than in the primary. But as Joe Mathews and I have been hearing dozens of times as we travel the state to talk about California Crackup, voters are appalled by the empty rhetoric and stale clichés of campaign-speak. They are disgusted by a deadlocked system of government that seems incapable of working. The governor’s race “has also been a disappointment: feeding their cynicism, taxing their patience — they long ago tuned out the incessant advertising — and instilling little faith that either candidate can deal with the state’s paralyzing dysfunction,” as Mark Barabak reports in the Los Angeles Times.

Elias believes “there’s every reason to vote this fall.” The voters we talk to, and those Barabak interviewed, know better. This has been the perfect Seinfeld campaign: the election about nothing. Here’s betting that once again, the number of eligible California voters who stay home will carry the day over those who go to the polls—a fact that’s not likely to change until we make the state governable again.