(Ed’s Note: This is the first of two parts on the 2018 elections. Part II will be posted Wednesday)
The 2016 elections have yet to fade in our rear-view mirror, but already the most important topic in Sacramento — and nationally — is the coming 2018 election cycle.
After a tumultuous 2016, many of us are expecting the mid-term elections to be a deep and engaging referendum on the current administration and whatever intervening events occur in the coming year and a half.
We generally expect to be a low turnout for the gubernatorial primary and a mediocre turnout for the general election.
Republicans, who control both houses of Congress and nearly two-thirds of the state legislatures across the nation, will be seeking to solidify their gains. Democrats will attempt to regain relevancy in a handful of states and pick up 24 seats in the House of Representatives in their fight to regain majority control.
Several of these potential pick-ups for Democrats could come in a set of targeted California congressional districts in which sitting Republicans weathered tough re-elections in 2016. Those include Darrell Issa (CA-49), Steve Knight (CA-25) and Jeff Denham (CA-10). There is even a scenario where these targets extend to David Valadao (CA-21), Ed Royce (CA-39) and Mimi Walters (CA-45).
At the state level, 2018 will see competitive state Senate races and a potentially challenging reelection for Republican Janet Nguyen in Orange County and two Republican seats to defend in the Central Valley, with Andy Vidak (SD-14)* and the terming out of Anthony Canella (SD-12).
There could also be some opportunities for both parties to field candidates in a small number of Assembly seats that flipped Republican in 2014, or flipped Democrat in 2016.
But first comes the primary election.
We see increased public interest in political events, with voters seemingly at the edge of their seats awaiting the next move or tweet from the new Trump administration. More people are watching Sean Spicer press conferences than some weekday soap operas.
But those putting together next year’s campaigns are struggling to understand the nexus between this charged political atmosphere and what we generally expect to be a low turnout for the gubernatorial primary and a mediocre turnout for the general election.
Starting sometime in the coming year, the Department of Motor Vehicles should complete implementation of a new “automatic” voter registration program with all in-person transactions.
Will this level of engagement extend to June of next year, or will the public burn out? Will voters connect the dots between the national events and state elections? And how will expected growth in voter registration and changing composition of the California electorate play a factor in a state that has seen more changes in its voter registration than at any time in the last four decades?
The Growing and Changing Electorate
Not since the early 1970s, when 18-to-20 year olds were first given the right to vote, have we seen as much transition in the California electorate.
Some of this is organic, driven by excitement or anxiety around the Trump candidacy.
But an equal force has been mechanical: Voters who wanted to engage in the election did so in higher numbers with statewide online registration and aggressive social media campaigns to increase participation.
The state’s voter registration has topped 19.5 million, and could exceed 20 million before the 2018 Primary. Additionally, there has been a huge increase in voters choosing to vote by mail, up from 1.5 million in 2002 to more than 11 million today.
And before the 2018 primary we are expecting to see another growth spurt, again driven by a change in the mechanics of how voters register. Starting sometime in the coming year, the Department of Motor Vehicles should complete implementation of a new “automatic” voter registration program with all in-person transactions.
This means that going forward we will have Democrats, Republicans, minor parties, (Libertarians, American Independent, Green) then No Party Preference, and, finally, “unknown.”
The actual change in the process is simply an “opt-out” rather than an “opt-in” for the registration process. This means that eligible Californians will be told that their registration will be completed or updated after each visit to the DMV unless they complete a form to stay unregistered to vote. The impact of this change should mean a couple of million new registrations as the state gets closer to full registration of its 24 million eligible voters.
These new DMV registrations will pose two interesting challenges.
First, the voters who register through the DMV in its current opt-in process are already several points lower in turnout than other voters – and it is expected that reluctant registrants would have an even lower participation.
Second, the DMV process does not include automatic registration with a party. In order to select a partisan affiliation, the voter must take an additional step of completing the registration at a nearby kiosk. Since most people like to get out of the DMV offices as quickly as possible, there is a clear possibility that they won’t have completed this registration procedure and will have their partisanship listed as “unknown.”
This means that going forward we will have Democrats, Republicans, minor parties, (Libertarians, American Independent, Green) then No Party Preference, and, finally, “unknown.” This will pose an increasing challenge to the partisan candidates and issues whose campaigns are trying to target voters based on ideology. It will also make the political parties appear weaker as their percentage of the electorate diminishes.
Along with more voters on the file, there will also be two changes driven largely by the way county-level administrators implementing new election laws.
Any campaign that is trying to plan effectively for 2018 will have to project turnout based on a growing and changing registered population.
The first will be same-day registration, which was passed several years ago and should finally go into effect in 2018.
The California version of same-day registration is more limited in scope than in other states. It does not allow someone to simply register at a polling place; first, they must go to the county registrar or a satellite office.
As a result, the actual impact of the law likely will depend on how aggressively counties establish satellite offices for accepting these same-day registrations and how campaigns and the media inform the public about how the process works.
The second change gives 14 counties the ability to switch from a precinct-based election focused on Election Day to a Vote Center system that emphasizes vote by mail.
The system, if adopted by these counties, would mail ballots to all voters and give them opportunities to mail in their ballots, or vote at local voting centers starting 10 days before the election.
Any campaign that is trying to plan effectively for 2018 will have to project turnout based on a growing and changing registered population, and develop strategies that take into account the opportunities and challenges of the changing processes.
Voters who decline to select a partisan label when registering appear to be signaling that they are uninterested in the partisan contests.
The 2014 primary election saw historically low turnout with 25% of registered voters, just 18.4% of the state’s eligible voters, casting ballots. However, this was not a complete collapse in turnout but more of a recent trend of extremely low turnout in gubernatorial primaries. Since the turn of the century, turnout in primary elections has hovered at around 34% and among all 19.5 million current registered voters, only 7.5 million, or 37% have ever voted in a gubernatorial primary.
Enthusiasm for any particular primary election can wax and wane based on the candidates, the number of open races without incumbents seeking re-election, and the perceived stakes of the election in any given cycle. There also are structural changes that can more permanently depress turnout for a primary election.
California has become increasingly non-partisan, and the data strongly suggests that non-partisan voters are less likely to turnout for partisan primary contests.
Looking at the following chart with partisan performance in elections going back to 2002, you can see how non-partisan voters dip in the share of votes cast in each primary. Most recently, in the 2016 Primary, they constituted more than one-in-four registered voters, but they represented less than one-in-five votes cast.
The open primary was supposed to give a greater voice to this growing population by extending opportunities for them to vote for the best candidate, instead of having to select a party and vote only among candidates in one partisan bucket.
However, experience has not borne this out. Voters who decline to select a partisan label when registering appear to be signaling that they are uninterested in the partisan contests.
Campaigns, aware of reduced non-partisan turnout, and relying on voter models that utilize past behavior, are discounting the turnout likelihood for these voters. This becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy as campaigns don’t invest in voters who have missed the last two gubernatorial elections and therefore these voters get less mail, fewer calls, and reduced messaging that could drive them to the polls.
The primaries have also been stripped of citizen-drafted ballot measures giving less reason for voters to participate.
In past elections, divisive ballot measures –like those on gay marriage, bilingual education, tribal gaming, term limits, taxes and criminal justice — had the impact of increasing overall spending and pushing voter turnout, particularly among voters who might have been less interested in particular candidate races.
Part of the rationale for moving these citizen-generated measures off the primary election ballot was their low voter turnout, but ironically the absence of these has likely led to even lower turnout as these elections have become less interesting and ultimately decide little other than the composition of the November ballot – something in which many voters are showing decreased interest.
Ed’s Note: *Corrects 6th graf to remove reference to Vidak being termed out in the 14th Senate District. Paul Mitchell, a veteran political strategist and a regular contributor to Capitol Weekly, is the founder of the CA120 column and the vice president of Political Data, which markets information to campaigns in both major parties.