To offer a semblance of context to Tuesday’s dismal election turnout, consider this: Roughly twice as many Stanislaus County residents pay their garbage bill each month as voted this time around.
Paying the garbage bill is a good thing. After all, someone will need to haul away and, hopefully, recycle all of those sample ballots, voter guides and unused by-mail ballots after an election in which less than 16.95 percent of the county’s 211,277 registered voters exercised their right to vote. Maybe the better way to drive home the point is to say 83 percent didn’t vote. More than 175,000 likely ignored the information.
Granted, most everyone expected a low turnout this time around. Gubernatorial primaries in nonpresidential election years tend not to be big drawing cards. And the governor’s race offered 15 candidates. But there were some important local races that didn’t merely whittle down the fields for the general election in November – the district attorney, sheriff and assessor posts among them.
Local political observer Randy Siefkin knew the turnout would be low. As vote-by-mail grows in popularity, the excitement of election day declines because those who vote by mail generally do so weeks before the elections. Campaigns aren’t as active as in the old days when most went to the polls to cast their votes. The Valley doesn’t draw the signs and door-to-door campaigning of the statewide races.
“They’re targeting more of the voter-rich areas,” Siefkin said.
And in the local races, “The phone banks, the rides to the polls and the hoopla – there’s not as much of that as we used to do,” Siefkin said. “But I didn’t think (the turnout) would be that low. It was a bit shocking.”
Rep. Jeff Denham of Turlock and 12th District Assemblywoman Kristin Olsen, both Republicans, organized an election day phone bank that made 7,000 calls urging people to vote.
“But that’s such a small number overall,” Olsen said. Both dominated their races and will head into the November general election favored to retain their seats.
Still, less than 17 percent represents the height of voter apathy, disgust and more.
“Those who vote allegedly represent the will of the people,” Siefkin said. “But what is your mandate if you get 51 percent of 16 percent? The other side is that the citizen-initiated initiatives aren’t on the ballot until November.”
The propositions, he said, generate huge ad campaigns and plenty of political vitriol that creates interest and, of course, spin.
Even so, some have lost faith in the politicians, the bureaucrats and the process. A few days ago, one Modesto resident told me he’d recently gone to the Stanislaus County clerk-recorder’s office to have his name removed from the voter registration rolls. He’s had enough, he said, of nonresponsive and disingenuous government and those who run it at all levels. Frequently, in fact, you’ll hear people dismiss elections because they don’t believe government works for anyone other than those whose who work within the government.
They don’t believe their elected officials listen. They don’t believe city hall or the county play fair when it comes to codes, regulations and common sense. They claim those in government hold the citizenry in disdain and see taxpayers only as a funding source, and sometimes they are dead-on correct. They believe their vote is worthless and therefore not worth their time.
Olsen said she hears much of the same on the campaign trail. The flip side to checking out, she said, is that if any or all of the above is true, it happens when elected officials don’t fear or at least maintain a healthy respect for their constituents.
“That’s why it is so important for people to participate in local elections,” Olsen said.
State Sen. Anthony Cannella, R-Ceres, dominated the 12th District race with more than 64 percent.
“People need to pay attention and hold the government accountable,” he said.
When no one is paying attention, agencies circumvent “tax” increases by labeling them “fees,” as the state did with the $150 fire suppression fee assessed to residents in Cal Fire coverage areas.
Another example are the fees the state pushed through on purchased goods such as lumber and paint – fees that are then taxed as part of the purchase. Taxes aren’t supposed to be taxed. So they call it a fee and tax it.
“That’s a perfect example,” said Olsen, who voted against the fee in October 2012.
Stanislaus County wasn’t alone in its apathy. Tuesday’s statewide turnout was 18 percent. Barely more than 17 percent voted in San Joaquin County, where the DA and sheriff’s races also were at stake. Merced County drew about 21 percent. By comparison, Tuolumne County loomed as the area’s political hotbed with 32 percent.
Indeed, the big winners will be the garbage-hauling franchises.
Their envelopes get returned, and with a check inside, and they’ll make some money recycling the discarded campaign materials.