California’s low energy primary: Turnout on track for a record low

California’s low energy primary: Turnout on track for a record low

SACRAMENTO, California — This could be one of the most consequential elections for Californians — but you wouldn’t know that by looking at ballot returns: Turnout is on track to be the lowest in history.

Only 1.7 million of California’s 22 million registered voters had returned their mail-in ballots as of Tuesday. That’s about 8 percent of the total, according to Paul Mitchell, vice president of Political Data Inc., which monitors turnout.

A few hundred votes could make a world of difference in California’s swing districts — including those held by Republican Reps. David Valadao and John Duarte in the Central Valley — which will help decide control of the House of Representatives.

Then there’s the high-stakes Senate race, where Democratic Rep. Katie Porter is straining to box out Republican Steve Garvey for second place behind Rep. Adam Schiff. 

Lower turnout generally means fewer Democrats are voting. “This is the kind of thing that would benefit Steve Garvey,” Mitchell said.

Primary turnout is typically all over the map. But there’s at least the potential for this year to be among the lowest in history due to an all-but-decided presidential primary and voter apathy.

California is lagging behind the 2022 midterm return rate, when the state had more ballots returned by this point in the race. Ultimately, 2022 saw a 33 percent turnout.

There’s dozens of factors that could affect the state’s final turnout number, but Mitchell is cautiously speculating that only 29 percent of California’s registered voters will turn in their ballots, falling below the current record low of 31 percent in 2012.

“Voters don’t view this as being an election that is the ‘most important election’ of their lifetime,” Mitchell said.

This is the exact thing California’s Democrat-dominated government has been trying to avoid. The state in recent years has taken steps to increase voter turnout, including sanctioning a “motor voter” program allowing eligible voters to register at the DMV, and automatically sending all eligible voters mail ballots.

A recent pollfrom the Public Policy Institute of California found low numbers of likely voters are excited about the election. Less than 40 percent said they were “extremely” or “very” enthusiastic about voting for president this year. That number dropped even further (28 percent) when it came to voting for Congress.

Another factor that helps drive up turnout is a competitive battle at the top of the ballot. But with President Joe Biden holding steady as the presumptive nominee for Democrats, and former President Donald Trump making a near clean-sweep through the early Republican primary states, there’s so far little cause for action in the top contests.

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