With emotions running high for the presidential race, there's a good chance that the statewide voter turnout on Nov. 2 will reverse a trend that's been declining for three decades.
Never mind Sen. John Kerry's apparent lock of California's 55 electoral votes or the snoozer of a race for U.S. Senate or the relative lack of competitive legislative races.
The state's large Democratic base is in an angry mood, thanks to antipathy towards President Bush and lingering resentment over last year's recall election. Democrats have been registering additional voters, especially among students.
And Republicans, riding Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's popularity, are pouring greater-than-expected resources into getting out the vote, especially in legislative districts where they believe Democrats are vulnerable. Schwarzenegger himself has raised $2 million for the state Republican Party; much of that is going toward getting out the vote.
"Voters across party lines tell us this is an important election, that it really does matter who wins, and that they want their vote to be part of this process," said Mark Baldassare, director of the Public Policy Institute of California Statewide Survey, who projects a heavy turnout in two weeks.
High voter turnout typically favors Democrats, and as a result could boost prospects for union-backed tax and health-care measures on the ballot. For example, a high Democratic turnout could help to pass Proposition 72, the employer health-care mandate that is narrowly trailing in recent polls. It could also thwart Republican challengers in legislative districts where Democrats have seemed vulnerable.
East Coast returns
On the flip side, if the presidential race is deemed a foregone conclusion as the polls close on the East Coast, voter interest that's now running high could quickly dissipate in the last hour or two the precincts are open here. And with no heart-stopping candidates or issues on the statewide ballot, turnout could continue along its downward slide. In 1960, 69 percent of eligible voters went to the polls; by 2000, that had fallen to 52 percent.
"My view is that all these cross-currents will cancel each other out and that turnout will either be average or slightly lower than average," said Elizabeth Garrett, a professor at the University of Southern California School of Law. "You don't have much in the way of presidential campaigning, there's a low-key Senate race and no ballot propositions are exactly catching fire."
Even a push from Schwarzenegger on several ballot measures and on behalf of several Republican candidates is not likely to boost turnout, Garrett and other elections experts said.
Several additional factors could conspire to depress turnout, most notably problems at polling booths. Controversy over voting machines and difficulties in processing an expected surge in last-minute registrations might sow confusion and create delays for voters on Election Day.
Still, many voting experts believe these factors will pale in comparison with feelings about the presidential race and the higher turnout that could result.
"The 800-pound gorilla here is the presidential race and passions are definitely running higher this election than past presidential elections," said Tim Hodson, executive director of the Center for California Studies at California State University Sacramento. "To find an election with this level of emotion, you probably have to go back to 1992 or even to 1980."
The closer the presidential race, the more people will likely vote in California even though the state and its electoral votes are a virtual lock for Kerry. Traditionally, the largest spike in votes occurs between the hours of 5 p.m. and 8 p.m. as people get off work; that's after the polls close on the East Coast.
"If there are three or four Floridas in the making as people turn on the 6 o'clock news, that could drive up turnout," said Republican political consultant Allan Hoffenblum, co-publisher of the California Target Book, which tracks state legislative races.
Democrats, mindful of the lessons of Florida in 2000, will be especially motivated to come out to vote in larger numbers, said Darry Sragow, a Los Angeles-based Democratic political consultant even though doing so will likely have no impact on the outcome of the presidential election.
However, few statewide races are competitive.
Incumbent U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer is expected to win handily over her uninspiring challenger, Republican Bill Jones.
And thanks to 2001's redistricting, there's not a single competitive Congressional race and only about a dozen of the 100 races for state Legislature are close. (Schwarzenegger's latent crossover appeal can be thanked for even that number; 18 months ago there would have only been a handful.)
Locally, Republicans have poured funds into the campaign of Redondo Beach Mayor Greg Hill, who is challenging Democrat Mike Gordon, former El Segundo mayor, for an open seat. Also, Republicans have helped finance the Ontario campaign of Alan Wapner, who is challenging Democrat incumbent Assemblywoman Gloria Negrette McLeod.
In these districts, elections experts expect turnout to exceed the statewide average by anywhere from 1 percent to 5 percent, depending on the frequency of precinct walking, phone bank operations and slate mailers.
Counting the Votes
There's another wild card that could affect the number of ballots cast this year: the state's later voter registration deadline. Two years ago, in an attempt to boost sagging voter turnout, the state Legislature and Gov. Gray Davis extended the deadline two weeks. Instead of falling on Oct. 4 as in previous presidential elections, the deadline now falls at midnight on Monday (Oct. 18).
As of late last week, county registrars were expecting a flood of last-minute registrations in advance of the deadline up to 130,000 in Los Angeles County alone.
Whether total turnout is boosted remains to be seen. Any spike will most likely draw more Democrats, since they tend to be more impulsive voters.
However, the late registrations could also backfire, producing problems that discourage voters from casting their ballots.
L.A. County Registrar-Recorder Conny McCormack said it's likely that more voters than usual will not get sample ballots in the mail. Instead, they will get postcards instructing them where to vote. Without sample ballots, people may not have the chance to mark their choices ahead of time, meaning they could spend more time in the voting booth or decide it's not worth the effort to vote at all.
This year, California voters will be facing the longest ballot since 1990, with 16 statewide initiatives contained in a 146-page booklet. This could also produce a "trailing off" effect, where fewer votes are cast for the higher-numbered propositions.
"The longer the ballot, the higher the drop-off rate," Hodson said. "It's quite possible that more people may vote on Proposition 60 than on Proposition 72."
McCormack said that many voters who register at the last minute will be too late to have their names included on voting lists that are assembled about 10 days before the election. That, in turn, could cause a surge in provisional ballots that, once filled out, are placed in separate envelopes. Pollworkers are being trained to handle provisional ballots, but some confusion is inevitable.
The biggest impact, though, is likely to be felt after the polls close. With more provisional and absentee ballots expected, close races could take days to be resolved.
"People always want speed and they always want accuracy when it comes to counting votes," McCormack said. "Both may not be possible; for us, it's always more important to be accurate."
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