Who Killed The Turnout?


The murder victim is Voter Turnout.

The scene was June's just completed California primary election.

And the coroner's report comes from political consultant Scott Lay, the author of the California political blog The Nooner, who wrote: "the biggest surprise in June was not on any individual race, but rather on the abysmally low turnout."

You'd have to go back to 1956 to find a presidential primary when fewer voters participated, Lay notes, when the state had 6.4 million registered voters, compared to more than 17 million today.

So who killed the turnout?

No arrests have been made. And there's been frustratingly little investigation by good government groups and authorities, who are producing mostly happy talk about how the election represented "progress' for reforms like the redistricting commission and the new "top-two," or jungle primary system, with all candidates of all parties on the same ballot.

But there are suspects. I see three leading suspects who deserve a close look.

1. The top-two "primary" itself.

This new top-two primary system was supposed to engage voters and draw more people to the polls, particularly independents, who were left out of the previous primary system. This time, those voters had the same vote anyone wanted, and they responded to the opportunity by not showing up, in record low numbers.

I see the top-two as responsible for this, as I wrote here. But this needs more investigation. Among the questions that should be asked are whether the new system and long ballots created confusion. Or whether there was a failure simply to educate people, particularly independents, to their new power in the top-two. Unfortunately, so far, there's been mostly happy talk about progress.

2. Mitt Romney

Romney's contribution to suppressing turnout may have been the fact that he locked up the Republican presidential nomination too soon -- well before the California presidential primary. Blame President Obama too, for not drawing a strong primary challenger. Presidential primary turnouts were driven in part by competition, and there was no competition here on the presidential side.

3. California Democrats

What did they do wrong? In a bid to gain political advantage, legislative Democrats passed -- and Gov. Jerry Brown signed -- legislation to prevent ballot initiatives from appearing on primary ballots. Their goal was to force an initiative they oppose -- a "paycheck protection" measure that would effectively limit union power -- from this June's election, when Republicans were expected to vote in higher numbers, until this November, when Democratic turnout may be higher.

The fig leaf explanation for this legislation was the argument that it's better governance to put initiatives on general election ballots in November, because more people tend to vote. But the low turnout this June showed the other side of that argument: that removing ballot initiatives from an election can depress turnout.

The research is solid that interesting ballot initiatives can draw voters to the polls. But this June ballot had only two initiatives -- none of them particularly exciting -- that had qualified before the legislation forcing all initiatives to November had gone into effect. And they weren't a draw. If the legislation hadn't passed, and paycheck protection had been on the ballot, turnout likely would have been higher. (And, ironically, Gov. Brown, who foolishly backed this legislation, would have less one competitor on the ballot.

So which of these three suspects should investigators focus on? I'm not sure. It's possible that all three entities -- the reformers behind top-two, Romney, and California Democrats -- helped kill turnout.

But I assume they'll ask for separate lawyers.

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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