Trickle of mail-in votes predicts an historic low-turnout election

Changes of address stack up at the Los Angeles County Registrar/Recorder building in Norwalk.
Changes of address stack up at the Los Angeles County Registrar/Recorder building in Norwalk.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC

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California voters turned off by Tuesday's ballot choices may set a record for low voter turnout, according to an analysis of the rate at which mail-in ballots have arrived at county voting offices.

The  ballot mail-in rate for this general election is far lower than for the 2010 midterm election and the 2012 presidential election, according to data gathered from California county registrars of voters by Political Data Inc.

In Los Angeles County, about 22 percent of ballots from mail-in voters had been returned as of Friday, with more expected to arrive Monday and Tuesday in time to be counted in the election. That rate was well below the 46 percent of ballots returned for counting by Election Day in the 2012 presidential election, or the 55.6 percent of ballots in the 2010 mid-term.

Paul Mitchell, a vice president of the company that analyzes  voter file information for  campaigns and others, said he anticipated seeing  a record low for voter turnout in general elections in California, possibly dipping below 50 percent.

Statewide, about 29 percent of ballots had been returned to county registrars in California's 58 counties, according to an online chart Mitchell updates as ballots are mailed in.

"That rate is lower than we have seen historically, and that doesn't speak well for the likelihood of having a high turnout election," said Mitchell.

When turnout is low, the voters most likely to be missing at the polls and mail-in balloting are young adults, Democrats, Latinos, Asian-Americans, renters, and the poor, Mitchell said.

"As you get really low turnout elections, the electorate, the people still actually voting on election day, looks less and less like California," Mitchell said. Low-turnout elections favor richer, whiter, and older voters, he said.

"You might have the electorate, the people actually voting, looking a lot more like the Midwest than they do like California in terms of their ethnicity and age," he said.

Saraph Lin, 24, of Alhambra, voted for President Obama in 2008. But not since.

"There's some people who do go out and vote and then there's people like me who don't care, and so whatever we might believe in just doesn't show up in the whole electorate," Lin said.

She said she was inspired by Obama during his first presidential candidacy, but was disappointed by his lack of progress getting his agenda passed in Congress. The people running for state and Congressional office don't seem relevant to her day-to-day life as a piano tutor, she said.

She said she was somewhat bothered that by withholding her vote, she reduces the representation of young, female and Asian-American voters like herself. But, she says, not enough to get her to vote tomorrow.

Rodger Jacobs, 55, of Echo Park, had been questioning whether to turn in the vote-in ballot he had received. He's a semi-retired writer of fiction, and describes himself as "passionately interested" in politics and worried about the disenfranchisement of Latinos and other voters of color. He describes his ethnicity as Caucasian.

He said he felt disinclined to participate as a voter in a system where the U.S. Supreme Court, via its Citizens United decision, had given corporations and other groups the ability to give millions of dollars in political campaigns.

"I was raised in a society where it was one person, one vote, and today, it's one dollar, one vote," Jacobs said. After talking over his concerns, he said he would research the candidates and measures and take his mail-in ballot to his polling place.

"In all likelihood, I'm going to cast my ballot tomorrow morning, but I'll be holding my nose," Jacobs said.