5 Numbers to Watch on Election Night

Election nights are about numbers, and you'll see a long list of them.

Nearly all will be percentages.

What percentage of the vote did each candidate get? What are the respective percentages of the vote for the yes and no sides of the propositions? What percentage of registered voters turned out?

But California elections are peculiar, and the results of these races may not be as telling as some other figures that aren't nearly as obvious. Here are five numbers to watch -- because they may tell us the most about California right now. In reverse order of importance, from #5 to #1.

5. The absolute number of votes it takes to make the top two.

Much will be made about the message that voters are supposedly sending by election one person or another, or one party or another, to different legislative seats.

But how much of a mandate do legislative candidates have? In the past, it's been possible for legislative candidates to win primaries with 10,000 or fewer votes -- a tiny number for California Assembly and Senate districts, which are by far the most populous in the country (nearly 500,000 in each Assembly district and nearly 1 million for Senate districts). That's anti-democratic. Indeed, the current Assembly Speaker, John Perez, won election in a primary with less than 5,000 votes.

The top-two primary system, which is being used for the first time this year, will produce two candidates in each legislative race.

It's been billed as a major reform that will bring moderation and engagement back to California politics.

So these numbers represent a good baseline test of that system. If those top two candidates are receiving 10,000 or fewer votes, it will be a sign that the new system hasn't engaged Californians, and that a tiny percentage of the population is determining who will represent us all in Sacramento.

4. How many votes does it take to get elected mayor of San Diego?

This has been a big, closely followed race for mayor in San Diego. It's been billed as a test of independent politics since Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher, a leading candidate, quit the Republican party a couple months ago.

But how engaged has the public really been? How many votes can the top candidate draw? How many can the second place finisher draw? A runoff is likely.

A good baseline to judge would be the 2008 results, when Jerry Sanders avoided a runoff by winning 116,000 votes out of more than 214,000 cast.

This year, one test of strength -- or weakness -- is whether any of these candidates could win as many as 60,000 votes -- a pathetically low number in a city of 1.3 million.

3. Total number of votes, both yes and no, on ballot initiatives.

Propositions 28 and Propositions 29 are the only two statewide initiatives on the ballot. Neither would represent major changes in state governance, but because they are California initiatives, they make changes that would be locked into law forever. (Prop 29, to its credit, permits amendment after 15 years).

Since initiatives obligate everyone in a state of 38 million indefinitely, it's always worth looking at how many people even made a choice on initiatives.

It's an academic question in California, but wouldn't be in other places. Some countries require a quorum of voters to make a vote on a ballot question valid. California might consider the same thing to give these votes greater legitimacy.

2. Number of districts that produce a top-two of the same primary.

This is by far the most important statistic in examining voting results. The theory of the new top-two primary is that it will produce more moderates. That's supposed to happen because in some districts, two members of the same political party will advance to the general election. And they will be forced to compete for the votes of the other party and of independents -- making their conduct in office more moderate.

There are a couple of problems with that theory. One fundamental problem is that it's unclear how many districts are so partisan that they will produce a top-two of the same party. So advocates of the top-two want to see larger numbers of districts that produce a top-two of the same party. By Tuesday night, we should have a clear sign of whether top-two primary has any hope of working.

1. The percentage of eligible voters who show up.

You'll hear lots about turnout figures, but those don't really tell the story. Those represent just the percentage of registered voters who show up. Fewer than half of Californians are registered -- 17.1 million. But 23 million Californians are eligible to vote.

Look at the total number of votes cast and compare to that number.

It's likely that the overwhelming majority of the eligible voters won't participate. And that's the real news of these elections -- most people choose not to participate. There is more of a choice, and message, in that than in the verdicts of the small niche of Californians we know as voters.

Lead Prop Zero blogger Joe Mathews is California editor at Zocalo Public Square, a fellow at Arizona State University’s Center for Social Cohesion, and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (University of California, 2010).

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