In the stages of grief, media coverage of California voters’ low turnout in the June primary jumped denial, and headed straight to anger and bargaining. “Something amazing happened in California on Tuesday: Hardly anyone came out to vote,” read a recent Washington Post piece. “I have three words to describe the primary elections held in California this week: What the what?” began an essay by Jessica Levinson in The Huffington Post.
Pundits have now moved on to bargaining, or, at least reasoning why so few Californians turned out to vote in the June 3 primary. In the Wall Street Journal, the Public Policy Institute of California’s Eric McGhee offered a “lack of an exciting race at the top of the ticket and no referendum or voter initiative questions on the primary ballot.” In the Los Angeles Times, Mark Z. Barabak opined that the low participation rates suggested, perhaps, that “Californians are relatively happy.” Deciding not to vote, he argued, was the expected solution to a mathematical equation: “Relative contentment + a sense of predestined outcome = little incentive to vote.”
While trends in low primary voter turnouts are, actually, a national issue, I hope we never move to grief’s final stage: acceptance.
To avoid accepting these trends, we should look to those seldom mentioned in all this handwringing: actual citizens who choose not to vote. And we don’t have to depend on media speculation; there is real data to guide us.
A little over a year ago, our friends at the Census Bureau (through their Current Population Survey) surveyed Americans who were registered but did not vote in the 2012 national election in November. Working with the National Conference on Citizenship, Pepperdine University’s Davenport Institute (where I work) has just released data showing why Californians said they did not vote.
Granted, these results are from the last presidential/national election, and not an off-year primary like this year’s. But these are some of the most comprehensive and direct data we have on why Californians who can vote, don’t. We compared the reasons Californians gave for not voting with national responses (here is the comparison in an infographic), and we found the top reasons were:
1. “Too busy, conflicting work or school schedules”: 20 percent (California) and 20 percent (U.S.)
2. “Not interested, felt like my vote wouldn’t make a difference”: 12 percent (California) vs. 16 percent (U.S.)
3. “Illness or disability”: 12 percent (California) vs. 14 percent (U.S.)
4. “Registration problems”: 10 percent (California) vs. 6 percent (U.S.)
5. “Didn’t like candidates or campaign issues”: 10 percent (California) vs. 13 percent (U.S.)
6. “Out of town or away from home”: 9 percent (California) vs. 9 percent (U.S.)
7. “Forgot to vote or send in absentee ballot”: 6 percent (California) vs. 4 percent (U.S.)
A few reasons registered in the low single digits: transportation problems (3 percent in California) and polling lines too long (2 percent in California). True to our reputation for climatic perfection, not a single Californian respondent said they missed voting because of “bad weather conditions.”
Several differences between California’s non-voters and American non-voters were striking. In our first election to use online voter registration, Californians were almost twice as likely to say that “registration problems” prevented their voting. Californians were less likely than Americans to cite “rational ignorance” (“vote wouldn’t make a difference”) as a reason for not voting, and less likely than Americans to say they “didn’t like candidates.” (While these are 2012 data, I’ll take that as a mild compliment since—full disclosure—I’m running for California secretary of state this year).
Notably, more than one in three Californians—35 percent—said they didn’t vote for some reason related to a schedule clash or simply forgetting to vote. In this we see what Ethan Jones from the state Assembly’s Elections and Redistricting Committee called the conflict between “structural” and “attitudinal barriers” to voting.
Structural barriers to voting can be addressed by the government: providing early voting options (with improved voting technology) and looking at ways to simplify the online and in-person (at DMV) registration processes. But “attitudinal barriers” can only be met by a more aggressive stances by institutions and leaders inside and outside of government: by promoting civic engagement, expanding civics education, and being more creative with “get out the vote” campaigns.
Such efforts can change the calculation for non-voters. But what is the calculation? In their 1968 paper, “The Calculus of Voting,” social scientists William Riker and Peter Ordeshook (whose work I first learned about on Medium) laid out the equation: “Probability that the user will impact the outcome of a civic decision + the benefit of a changed outcome to the user + a sense of civic duty the user gets from an action” must be greater than the “cost of civic action.” (Looking at the census data, it appears the greatest “cost of civic action” appears to be time wedged into busy schedules.) Put simply: “P + B+ D > C.”
With a dozen primary races qualifying this year as close contests, and absentee and provisional ballots being used to determine who will qualify for the November election in the state controller’s race, this year’s primary results should demonstrate to Californians that their votes count.
More work needs to be done to engage voters through improved uses of technology (California was recently ranked as one of the worst states for implementation of online voter education tools). We need to take a more aggressive approach to promoting the importance of voting through improved civics education and the development of partnerships for public service announcements and other advertising. California also remains the last state in America without a statewide voter database. Other states have collaborated with neighboring states to use databases to better communicate with voters, who can otherwise get forgotten when they move across state lines. We should do the same.
California can be more intentional about decreasing the “cost of civic action” by offering early voting, and creating centrally located voting centers (both recommendations of the bi-partisan Presidential Commission on Election Administration). To improve California’s democracy both citizens and government must be more accountable for their respective performance—or lack of it.
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