Poor Turnout Seen Halting Passage of Funding Measures

By HOWARD FINE
Staff Reporter

With a lackluster gubernatorial campaign failing to engage California voters and secession fading as a hot-button issue in L.A., voter turnout is expected to fall to near-record low levels on Nov. 5.

If those numbers bear out, it would greatly impact the prospects of several big-money bond measures and other races on the ballot.

Official projections won't be out until two weeks before the election, but unofficial estimates show statewide turnout at around 52 percent of registered voters 5 percent below the record low for a general election of 57.6 percent in 1998.

Some are even projecting turnout of less than 50 percent, a previously unheard of figure in a gubernatorial election.

"No question, turnout is likely to be quite pathetic," said Michael Alvarez, professor of political science at the California Institute of Technology and an expert on voting trends.

Earlier this year, as San Fernando Valley secession looked to be the year's most engaging issue, there was a widespread belief turnout would be higher in the city of Los Angeles than most anywhere else in the state. Not only would secession supporters go to the polls in record numbers, so would its opponents, the thinking went.

Indeed, some analysts speculated that a spike in turnout in the largest county could impact the outcome of some of the statewide races.

But in the last two months, interest in secession has waned as polls indicate it will likely lose in the citywide vote. Now, the prevailing view is that secession will bump up turnout only slightly in the San Fernando Valley and have a negligible impact elsewhere in the city.

"Sure, there will always be a core of voters discontented with City Hall, but we may not see the groundswell of support for secession that was once expected in the Valley," said Raphael Sonenshein, professor of political science at California State University Fullerton.

A recent poll by SurveyUSA for KABC-TV Channel 7, showed citywide support for secession at 43 percent, with 53 percent opposed. That is up from 40 percent support in August, although barring a dramatic turnabout this month it's not likely to near the 50 percent level especially given the barrage of anti-secession ads expected to air on local radio and television in the campaign's final four weeks.

Decline already seen

Countywide, the number of last-minute registrations has fallen dramatically this year, compared with the last gubernatorial election. In 1998, 62,400 people either re-registered or registered for the first time between Sept. 16 and Oct. 2. For the like 17-day period this year, only 29,100 people submitted registration forms.

"That's a dramatic falloff and we're taking it as an indicator that turnout may be lower in November," said County Registrar-Recorder Conny McCormack.

Not everyone is convinced that turnout either at the state or local level will be a record low.

"Tens of millions of dollars are being spent in 'get-out-the-vote' efforts that have been successful in past elections," said Allan Hoffenblum, publisher of California Target Book, which analyzes state races, and a former GOP consultant. "Because we're still more than a month out, we have yet to see the impact of these efforts: phone banking, mailers, door-to-door canvassing and the like. So while voter turnout may be a bit lower, I'm a bit skeptical of all these dire turnout predictions."

Nonetheless, this election faces what many political analysts consider a "perfect storm" of conditions that are likely to result in low turnout: a gubernatorial race that three recent polls indicate has turned off the majority of voters; no highly contentious bond measures; and only a handful of contested legislative races.

If the low turnout materializes, it could spell bad news for the three multi-billion dollar bond measures on the state ballot: Proposition 47, the $13 billion education facilities bond, Proposition 50, the $3.4 billion water quality/facilities bond; and Proposition 46, the $2.1 billion housing bond.

Low voter turnout could also adversely impact several local ballot propositions, including Measure K, the $3.3 billion education bond for the Los Angeles Unified School District; Measure A, the $250 million seismic upgrading and expansion of local cultural institutions; and Measure B, the $168 million parcel tax for trauma care funding.

"Low turnout almost always hurts bond issues and public spending," said Sonenshein. "Anti-tax and anti-borrowing people tend to go to the polls pretty consistently. It's those groups that traditionally support these measures that don't always go to the polls."

The impact of low turnout on candidate races is less clear.

"For Republicans to benefit, turnout has to go below 40 percent, and absolutely no one is predicting turnout that low," Hoffenblum said. "Otherwise, low turnout tends to cut across the board."

Last week's Los Angeles Times poll found that in a "low turnout" scenario, Gov. Gray Davis' lead over Republican candidate Bill Simon was higher 12 points than the 10-point lead in the baseline turnout scenario.

As for the "down-ticket" races for statewide office Controller, Secretary of State, Lieutenant Governor low turnout is likely to be less a factor than who turns out to vote. If Republican voters are convinced that standard-bearer Simon is going down to defeat and stay home, the prospect of a Democratic sweep for these offices already predicted in many quarters becomes likely.

If Democratic voters, either turned off by Davis or convinced he will win, stay home, Republicans might eke out one or two wins, especially in the races for Secretary of State or Controller.

Lacking charisma

Of course, it's the race at the top of the ticket that most determines turnout.

"The top of the ticket is simply not attractive to voters and that's why the expectation is that many will simply stay home," Hoffenblum said.

There also are no controversial ballot measure this time, such as Proposition 187, which denied benefits to illegal immigrants, or Proposition 209, which ended affirmative action in state-funded institutions.

Finally, the recent statewide redistricting resulted in districts that are widely regarded as safe for incumbents or the party that now holds the seat. Therefore, most of the close races were for open seats in the primaries.

Also complicating the local picture is the possibility of Election Day confusion similar to what happened at polling places during the March primary. Because of redistricting, complicated voting rules for the primary elections, and a shortage of poll workers, thousands of Angelenos encountered difficulties voting. Many ultimately never cast ballots.

McCormack said her office now has more than enough poll workers on hand. But she's still concerned about the impact of redistricting, which has resulted in about 20 percent of polling places being moved.

"Because turnout was so low during the March primary 25 percent there will be many people going to the polls this time who have not voted since redistricting took effect," she said. "We've tried to warn them that their polling place may have changed with a big red warning label on the cover of their sample ballot, but undoubtedly some will still show up where they always had and find no polling place there."

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