Conflicting signals from a balky electorate

California voters, always fickle, lived up to their reputation on June 5: Despite a signficant increase in registration, they stayed away from the polls in droves, with less than a third of the state’s registered voters actually casting ballots.

Two weeks before the election, some 17.15 million people — about three out of four of those eligible — had registered to vote, about a million more than the 16.12 million voters who registered for the June 2008 state primary election and some 1.4 million more than those registered for the Feb. 5, 2008 presidential primary. About a fifth declined to state a party preference.

According to the secretary of state, the most recent signups reflected the largest primary-to-primary registration increases since at least 1996. 

Vote-by-mail balloting, which has been on the increase in California for the past two decades, set a new record on June 5: Nearly two-thirds of California voters cast their ballots by mail breaking the previous record of 62 percent set in a special election in May 2009.

Overall, some 5.3 million voters went to the polls, or about 31.1 percent of the total voters registered in the state. The lowest voter turnout for any statewide election in California was 28.2 percent in June 2008.

The sharp increase in absentee voting, while surprising, continues a steady trend in California and national politics. “Given the ease and convenience that voting by mail offers, it’s not surprising to see more and more people choose to cast their ballots from home,” said Secretary of State Debra Bowen, the state’s chief elections officer.

In terms of voting clout, the most powerful and important County in California is Los Angeles. There, authorities reported the lowest proportionate turnout of any county in California at 21.8 percent, with the next lowest, San Bernardino, at 23.7 percent and Orange County at 26.5%.

The lackluster turnout may be something of an anomaly, in part because of the scarcity of major ballot propositions — a major exception was the proposed tobacco tax — and in part because of the lack of a close presidential contest in California. The turnout is likely to be higher in the November general election, when nearly a dozen major ballot propositions face voters as well as the confrontation between Pres. Barack Obama and his likely Republican challenger, Mitt Romney.

Tiny Alpine and Sierra counties, which conduct their elections by mail, reported the highest turnout, with 59.2 and 58.6 percent, respectively.

Going into the election, Los Angeles County reported 4.46 million registered voters. Just over half, 50.68 percent, identified themselves as Democrats. With the exception of Los Angeles and Imperial counties, the rest of the top 10 counties with Democratic registration all were in northern California – Alameda, San Francisco, Marin, Santa Cruz, Monterey, Sonoma, San Mateo and Contra Costa.

San Francisco also reported the highest level of independent voters – 30.6 percent.

Republican registration was highest in rural or suburban counties in central and northern California, led by Modoc at 50.05 percent, Lassen at 48.39 percent and Placer at 48.17 percent.

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