What's the Matter with California Turnout?

by Duncan Hosie, Rob Richie // Published July 10, 2014



In 1943, author William Faulkner tartly described California as the state where “the sun shines and nothing happens.” His observation aptly describes California’s June 2014 primary election. Despite clear skies and warm sunshine, more than three-quarters of registered voters did not vote. Turnout of registered voters, at 24.6%, was a record low. Yet this statistic conceals the extent of low turnout. In May 2014, California had 24,192,752 eligible voters, of whom 17,722,006 had registered to vote. Based on California’s much larger number of eligible voters, turnout was even lower: a meager 18%.

The turnout in 2014 may have been a historic low, but it reflects long-term trends in California democratic participation. While turnout rates remains higher than those of many states, they are down precipitously from the mid-20th Century, when the Golden State led the nation with some of the highest turnout rates in primary elections. Between 1950 and 1966, for example, an average of 63% of registered voters participated in primary elections. In the past decade, however, California primary turnout has been far lower. Turnout in state primaries was 34.6% in 2002, 33.6% in 2006, 28.2% in 2008, 33.3% in 2010, and 33.1% in 2012. The introduction of the Top Two primary in 2012 and the presence of presidential contests in 2008 and 2012 failed to salvage turnout. This year’s 24.6% turnout marked the lowest turnout yet.

Consider one precinct in Sonoma County, which epitomizes voter apathy in the primary election. The Sonoma State University precinct in Rohnert Park opened at 7 AM and remained open until 8 PM. Despite serving 8,000 registered voters, zero people voted in person. That is not a typo; zero people voted at a Rohnert Park precinct on June 3, 2014.

The dramatic increase in vote-by-mail and early voting ballots partially explains why so few Californians voted in person at the Rohnert Park precinct and others across the state. In Sonoma County, for example, 81% of the 98,728 ballots cast in the June 2014 primary election were absentee ballots. California’s vote-by-mail patterns have surged- from 5% of all primary ballots in 1980 to 25% in 1998 to 65% today. But even if often popular among regular voters, voting-by-mail is far from a panacea to low voter turnout. According to data from the California Secretary of State, the sharp rise in voting-by-mail since 1980, with particular growth in the past 10 years, has corresponded with steep declines in primary election turnout. California’s northern neighbor, Oregon, relies on a VBM (vote by mail) system, and also experienced declining turnout in the most recent primary election.

Low Turnout, Unrepresentative Democracy

The few who did vote in the primary were older, whiter, and wealthier than registered voters and Californians as a whole. In the words of Corey Cook, the director of the University of San Francisco's Leo T. McCarthy Center for Public Service, the voters in the 2014 primary were "not at all [reflective] of the population of the state." Non-Hispanic whites are only 39% of the entire California population and 53.6% of the citizen voting age population, but comprised three in four likely voters according to a Field Poll. Only one in eight (12%) Californians are over 65, but this cohort composed more than a third (35%) of likely voters.

A pre-primary poll from the Los Angeles Times and USC Dornsife College replicated these findings, and demonstrated that primary voters are disproportionately wealthy. According to the poll, 30% of the registered voters had voters over $75,000, compared to 35% of likely primary voters. The poll also illustrated that 15% of responders who had incomes lower than $20,000 had voted in the past two primaries, compared to 34% of respondents whose incomes were between $75,000 and $100,000 and 35% of respondents whose incomes were greater than $100,000. A FairVote analysis of May poll by the Los Angeles Times underscores the highly unrepresentative nature of participation California primaries relating to particularly large skews by race and age.

There is a partisan element as well – one that also affects which candidates reach the November ballot. According to the California Secretary of State, 28.4% of registered voters in May 2014 were Republicans, as opposed to 43.4% of registered voters as Democrat. But a Field Poll of likely primary voters in May found that 37% were Republicans. Unaffiliated and independent voters were also unrepresented. Despite composing 28.2% of registered voters, a Survey USA poll demonstrated that this cohort was just 23% of likely voters. Moreover, the May Los Angeles Times poll found that only 11% of non-major party respondents had voted both the 2010 and 2012 primaries, as opposed to 26% of Democrats and 42% of Republicans.

Why does this matter? In analyzing the 2012 elections, Daily Kos reported that Democratic performance in competitive California primaries was almost always better in November than in the June primary. Out of 13 competitive California House seats in 2012, Democrats performed considerably better in 12 of the general election contests than in the primary races. Yet these less representative primary electorates determine which candidates advance to November – and in some cases (like the 31st congressional district last year and the 25th district this year) keep one party entirely out of general elections that should be very competitive between the major parties.

Low Voter Engagement and Enthusiasm: An Entrenched Problem

In addition to low and unrepresentative turnout, the recent primary election was notable for another reason: a distinct lack of voter engagement and enthusiasm. A survey of 901 likely primary voters found that only had been following the election “closely.” In comparison, 67% of California likely voters in the 2010 primary and 68% in the 2006 primary reported that they had been following those respective contests “closely." Despite voter apathy, however, primary voters indicated concern with low electoral participation. In a survey of nearly 1,000 primary voters, 89% believed low voter turnout is “a cause for concern.”

Although low turnout in California primaries presents a particularly entrenched problem, the Golden State’s voter turnout problem extends to general elections. Turnout in general elections has varied over the years, but California voter turnout in general elections is below the national average and moving in the wrong direction. California’s VEP (voting eligible population) turnout in the 2006 midterm election, at 42%, was the 31st highest in the country. California’s turnout in the 2008 presidential election (62.5%) was the 33rd highest in America. In 2012, only 55.9% of California’s voting eligible population came to the polls, or the 41st highest in the nation.

Reforms to Raise Turnout and Foster Civic Engagement 

Record low and unrepresentative turnout highlights the pressing need for electoral reforms that engage more voters. But implementing the right electoral reform is crucial. Not all changes currently discussed in the public discourse will address the fundamental causes for falling turnout. For example, supporters of California’s jungle primary argued that this reform would boost democratic participation in California. But according to reports by FairVote and the Public Policy Institute of California, Top Two has not reversed declining turnout in primaries and instead has generated unintended consequences. Similarly, even though journalists and election officials sometimes argue that expanding vote-by-mail options will augment turnout, the evidence is mixed.

What should California do, then? We don’t profess to have all the answers. But we believe that the following four reforms would cultivate dynamic and equitable contests in consequential elections, primarily by shifting the electoral emphasis from primaries to (higher turnout) general elections. These reforms are applicable to other states, as well. Indeed, many states have primary turnouts even lower than California’s.

1. Reforming Top Two with Ranked Choice Voting (RCV)

Surveys reveal that California primary voters were decidedly unenthusiastic about their candidate choices. Top Two exacerbates this problem by severely limiting general election choices – and even denying voters a chance to vote for someone else with a write-in candidacy. Ultimately, blanket primaries enable a small, unrepresentative faction to eliminate most candidates before the higher turnout November election. Consider the open seat race for California’s 33rd district, currently represented by Congressman Waxman. 21 candidates entered the fray, with intriguing candidacies from across the spectrum. But only two candidates (Democratic State Senator Ted Lieu and Republican Prosecutor Elan Carr) will advance to November, with Lieu now expected to coast to victory without any viable competition. All the real choice was in a primary that most voters ignored.

The current system also limits choice when members of the same party compete head-to-head in the general election. In 2012, voters in 7 California districts (the 8th, 30th, 31st, 35th, 40th, 43rd, and 44th) had either two Democrats or two Republicans on the general election ballot, with no other candidates or even the chance to write in a candidate. That’s what makes Top Two interesting to some backers, but it’s a real problem for voters who want to back more than a "lesser of two evils.” This November, Republicans in the 17th district will face a choice between two Democrats (Representative Mike Honda and Ro Khanna) and Democrats in district will face a choice between two Republicans (Representative Tom McClintock and Art Moore) in the 4th district. These one-party contests leave many voters without a preferred candidate to support, leading a substantial rise in voter absenteeism -- perhaps as high as half of voters from the excluded major party will simply skip the race.

It gets worse for backers of candidates outside the major parties. Although minor forces compared to the California Democratic and Republican parties, third parties play a role in California politics. 7.0% of California voters are registered with a third party and another 21.2% have no party preference. At least 342,516 Californians, or more people than the total population of Iceland, voted for third-party candidates in 2012. Third party candidates in the 2012 election garnered 1.73% of all votes nationally, but 2.64% of votes in California.

Since the adoption of Top Two, no third party candidate has ever advanced to November in a primary where both major parties fielded at least one candidate. This year, fewer than one in seven Californians will have a chance to vote for a non-major party candidate in any statewide or congressional race in November 2014. Top Two “[wipes] out political diversity and choice” and “disenfranchises” thousands of Californians who identify with third parties, according to Michael Feinstein, a spokesman for the Green Party. Gale Morgan, the vice chairman of the Libertarian Party of Northern California, noted that “the top two primary is making it difficult” for his party to compete.

To provide voter choice and uphold the basic goals of representative democracy including real debate from across the spectrum, Top Two must be modified. We propose that California advance four candidates in each race rather than two. Then, in the general election, voters would rank their top three candidates in order of preference. Candidates could list the endorsement of a party or political association to give voters more information, and the winner would be determined by ranked choice voting, also known as instant runoff voting – a proven system in California and around the world. These changes would improve upon the most positive aspects of Top Two, by opening primaries and general election races to greater competition – far more races would have more than one candidate associated with a district’s majority party, for example. At the same time, it would correct the system’s biggest problems associated with giving primary voters too much power and depriving voters of ideologically diverse general election choices. Compared to Top Two, Top Four with RCV would encourage more voters to participate.

RCV also ensures that the decisive election occurs when turnout is highest. As a consequence, it precludes the possibility that the strongest candidates are eliminated in low-turnout primaries. Since 2004, San Francisco has used RCV to replace a system in which non-majority outcomes were decided in December runoffs that usually had much lower turnout. Ten years later, the results are impressive. San Francisco is second in voter turnout in mayoral elections among America’s 22 largest cities, and city winners always are decided when the most people participate. San Francisco had 14 traditional runoff races between 2000 and 2003, 8 of which experienced a decline in voter turnout. In the subsequent 15 RCV elections between 2004 and 2010, 0 experienced a decline in voter turnout. Similarly, Oakland started using RCV in 2010, replacing a system where candidates could win with a majority in June, or advance to a November runoff. Since that change, 16 of the 18 offices elected by RCV have elected winners who had more votes than the previous winner in the old system – including electing a mayor who won more votes than any Oakland mayor in two decades.

2. A National Popular Vote for President

 The current Electoral College rule excludes California’s 24 million eligible voters from meaningful participation in presidential elections. By the time of the general election, presidential candidates routinely ignore California and over 34 other “spectator states.” Instead, they use California as a pit stop for ritzy fundraisers. In 2012, for example, more than 99% of general election campaign events and spending were lavished on voters in just 10 states.

Ultimately, shifting campaign spending and attention to California would raise general election turnout. For this shift to occur, more states (representing 105 electoral votes) should adopt the National Popular Vote plan for president. The National Popular Vote plan is an inner-state agreement that guarantees election of the candidate who wins the most votes in all 50 states and DC. So far, the plan is more than 60% of the way to enactment, having passed in 11 states and jurisdictions, including California, representing a total of 165 electoral votes.

3. Stimulating a High Participation State

 California should foster a culture that values and encourages voter participation. Enshrining an explicit, fundamental right to vote in the California and U.S. Constitutions is an important start. A constitutional right to vote would provide numerous tangible benefits to voters, notably greater protections from disenfranchisement, discrimination, and unfair vote counting standards. Symbolically, it would raise turnout by demonstrating a national and sustained commitment to voting. Encouraged and inspired by this change, cities and states could do much more to encourage participation, starting with the passage of Promote Our Vote resolutions.

By abandoning the opt-in structure for voter registration, universal voter registration would make California elections more accessible and stimulate high participation. 65.6% of California’s voting age citizen population is registered to vote, one of the lowest rates in America. Only five states have lower registration rates than California. Ironically, California, the state known for innovation and Silicon Valley entrepreneurship, currently employs an antiquated and decaying voting equipment infrastructure and lacks a statewide voter registration database. Countries with universal voter registration have higher levels of turnout, particularly among disadvantaged communities and populations currently underrepresented in California elections.

4. Fair Representation Voting

 In 2010, California voters approved Proposition 20, which granted the California Citizen Redistricting Commission the responsibility of drafting the state’s Congressional districts following the 2010 Census. Proponents heralded the measure as an audacious reform that would reduce gerrymandering and initiate electoral competition. In reality, most of California’s legislative districts remain firmly in one party’s control after the reform.

In the short run, the new districts did upset the status quo. The redistricting initiated numerous retirements and intraparty competition (including the headline-grabbing showdown between Representative Howard Berman and Brad Sherman). Yet after incumbents settled into their districts and the dust settled, the redistricting failed to change the long-run, underlying partisan landscape. Take congressional elections, which remain overwhelmingly lopsided. After redistricting, California has the same number of swing districts (5), in which no party had a clear partisan advantage. Similarly, the number of districts that are “safe” for one party remained constant at 32. Although the Top Two primary opens up a handful of these races to more November competition (and, prospectively much more so with Top Four), the overwhelming number of districts are safely locked in for one party. As a result, congressional and state legislative races are almost never going to drive turnout.

This lack of competition is not due to redistricting. In fact, it is tied to districting itself, as most areas of California have a decided partisan tilt. By combining adjacent districts into bigger districts, electing between three and five candidates in each district according to population, and allocating seats in proportion to shares of the vote, fair representation voting addresses the imbalances inherent in winner-take-all districts. With fair representation voting for legislative elections, voters will have more choices that reflect their interests and views. By definition, winner-take-all districts prevent like-minded voters from electing representatives who reflect their interests, thus weakening the incentive to vote. With fair representation, every voter in every election can affect their representation. Empirical evidence shows that countries with fair representation voting experience higher turnout.


Low voter turnout in California is a serious and intractable problem. Our agenda would not result in 100% participation – indeed, nothing short of rigorously enforced compulsory voting would achieve universal voting. But without changes to our electoral system, turnout will probably continue to fall and grow even more disparate, especially in primaries that play such a key role in the current system in shaping California’s November ballots. By implementing FairVote’s four reforms, California – and indeed all states -- can act decisively to promote turnout and ensure a representative democracy. To paraphrase Faulkner, California can be the state of sunshine and high voter turnout.