North-south absentee landscape having impact on vote

In April I wrote an editorial for Capitol Weekly sounding the alarm on the low absentee voting in Los Angeles and relatively high absentee voting in the Bay Area.  

I argued that prospects for L.A.-based statewide candidates were diminished greatly, particularly in the Democratic primaries, by turnout factors that were the equivalent of shifting a half-million voters out of L.A. and into the Bay Area.  Democratic Pollster Ben Tulchin and I had predicted this to be a hidden advantage for his client, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, and expected to see the trend impact other statewide contests.

Looking at the results of the June Primary it is clear that this prediction came true, not just producing a win for Newsom, but also impacting other contests.  

Voters nominated a statewide ticket dominated by Northern California candidates, and final turnout numbers from the Secretary of State show L.A. under-performing the rest of the state by 13 percent and the Bay Area over-performing by 7 percent.   In raw numbers, this represents 575,000 vote drop in L.A. County and 235,000 vote gain in the Bay Area – a seismic shift of 800,000 votes.

Absentee voting in L.A. County was so low in June that less than 9 percent of its registered voters cast a ballot by mail.  This is compared to 25 percent of all registered voters in the Bay Area and 23 percent in the Central Valley.  In another point of comparison, L.A. voters cast just 20,000 more pre-election day ballots than San Diego County, even though L.A. has three times more voters.

As proven by recent elections, the number of absentee voters has significant impact in low-turnout elections.  In high turnout races, like November 2008, the absentee vote percentage has almost no effect on overall turnout because voters are so motivated to go to the polls.  But when statewide enthusiasm for elections dips, receiving a ballot in the mail provides a no-excuses way to vote.  Research shows this provides a higher floor for voter participation, particularly among lower income voters.  

What does this mean going forward?  

Until something dramatically shifts absentee voting patterns in L.A. we will see the county’s voters greatly underperform in low turnout elections.  The biggest losers from this underperformance are local elected officials seeking statewide office, ballot measures requiring votes from more progressive L.A. voters, and any candidate or measure seeking Latino votes Over 35 percent of the state’s Latino voters are in L.A. County, and their absentee voting rates are in single digits.

In each individual election consultants and candidates work to turnout voters based on point-in-time factors – driving at issues that motivate people today, phoning and walking and sign-waving, and usually focusing only on a narrow base of voters most likely to support their candidate or cause. Getting people to vote in an uninspired election can be a huge accomplishment, yet participation in one election has limited long-term benefit to turnout trends.   The money spent on getting an individual candidate elected in L.A. County can impact that race, but it is not changing the political culture for the better.

In contrast, converting registered voters in L.A. to absentee does change the political culture by tweaking one of the mechanical causes of the county’s low voter turnout.  Fortunately, increasing the number of permanent absentee voters is not dependent on enthusiasm for a candidate or mood on Election Day, and gains in absentee voting can be achieved in non-election years.  Yet, nobody to date has invested in this kind of long-term strategy, likely because campaign spending has to be justified by narrower short-term goals.

Therefore, forward thinking organizations representing Latinos, labor, consumer rights and other progressive interests should do this lifting.  Looking forward to the next few elections the state is facing changes from a new system of redistricting, a potentially moderating open primary, a likely increase in ballot measures to close the perpetual budget deficit, and future battles over social issues like abortion and gay marriage.

Addressing this structural problem is one of the biggest challenges facing Democrats and our allies in this next decade.  The question is will anyone do anything about it, or will we all continue to work in only our short-term interests and then bemoan the half-million or more progressive L.A. voters that fail to turnout when we lose something big in a future election?

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