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Hot issues, cold electorate

A peculiarly California election: Its historical significance was matched only by its miserable turnout.

Despite a pair of ballot propositions of far-reaching importance, political districts drawn by an independent commission and the first statewide top-two election ever, California voters stayed away from the polls in droves. Early numbers and projections suggested it was the lowest turnout ever for a presidential primary year ever.

Of the 17.1 million Californians who registered to vote, barely 3.85 million of them – less than a fourth or about 22 percent — cast ballots for or against Proposition 29, the hotly contested tobacco tax. The opposition campaign, fueled by seven-digit donations from the tobacco industry, wound up spending some $47 million.

And that measure, despite its lackluster draw, captured more votes than any other statewide issue, including the presidential primary, the U.S. Senate race and Proposition 28, the term limits change.

Indeed, of the four statewide questions facing voters – the two ballot props, the Senate contest and the race for president, the presidential primary took the least votes – about 3.07 million, with half of them going to Obama. Of the 7.4 million registered Democrats in California, only about 1.5 million – about a fifth — bothered to show up to vote for the incumbent president, a Democrat who faced no serious challenge.

The final tallies are here.

Proposition 28, the term-limits change, was overwhelmingly approved by nearly a million votes, but while the measure proved popular among those who cast ballots, the number of voters who bothered to engage the issue was paltry. About 3.77 million cast ballots, or slightly less than for Proposition 29.

Primary elections, as opposed to general elections, historically have a lighter draw. But even by those standards, Tuesday night was remarkable.

If the pre-election projections by the Field Poll turn out to be accurate – and they usually are – Tuesday’s presidential primary will have the lowest participation level in at least 64 years, or about fourth of eligible voters actually taking part in the election, statewide or local.

Since 1948, there has been general decline in participation in California’s presidential primaries. The decline isn’t consistent from year to year, but the overall trend is down, from a high of 52.8 percent in 1952 to 30.5 percent in 2004.

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