Posted on October 12, 2004

Campaign 2004: Elections Still Province Of White Voters

Aurelio Rojas, Sacramento Bee, Oct. 12

The outcome of several races and measures on the Nov. 2 California ballot is uncertain, but experts say one thing is sure: Three in four likely voters are white.

When the Census Bureau announced in 2000 that white residents had slipped below half the state’s population, many people assumed a political power shift was imminent.

But white voters will dominate the electoral process for decades because voting is highly correlated with education and income, according to the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California.

In “The Ties that Bind: Changing Demographics and Civic Engagement in California,” PPIC researchers warn that the imbalance between the populace and policy decision-makers could aggravate the chasm between the haves and have-nots in the state.

“California is headed into unchartered waters — the most diverse population in American history, voting rates lower than those in the rest of the nation and disproportionately low rates of voting,” PPIC President David Lyon wrote, summarizing the findings of authors S. Karthick Ramakrishnan and Mark Baldassare.

Using data from numerous statewide surveys, the PPIC found only 13 percent of likely voters are Latino, 7 percent African American and 5 percent Asian. White residents make up three-quarters of likely voters.

A list of counties with the highest and lowest voter turnout in the 2000 general election and 2004 primary election is telling.

At the upper end, affluent counties such as Marin and Placer are clustered with overwhelmingly rural, white counties such as Amador, Alpine, Plumas and Sierra.

Holding down the rear are largely agricultural counties with high percentage of Latinos and low personal incomes — places such as Imperial, Merced and Stanislaus counties.

A third of the state is Latino, the lowest per-capita income group in California. Many Latinos are too young to vote, not citizens or illegal immigrants. Others who can vote don’t; Latinos account for a majority (57 percent) of adults who are not registered to vote, according to the PPIC.

Marin and Imperial counties represent the polar extremes of wealth and political participation in California.

A whopping 84 percent of registered voters cast ballots in Marin County in the last presidential election; little more than half did in Imperial County.

Statewide, turnout was more than 70 percent. First and last among California counties in participation, Marin and Imperial are sums of their parts.

Marin is largely white (84 percent) with a median household income of $71,306, according to the 2000 U.S. census. Only one in five residents is below the voting age.

“Folks here pay attention to what’s on the ballot, the connection between candidates and measures, and what that means not only to their community but their household,” said Registrar Mi chael Smith.

Imperial is agricultural and poor, with a median household income of $31,870. Abutting the U.S.-Mexico border, it is predominantly Latino (72 percent) — nearly a third of whom are too young to vote.

“Because of our agricultural community, a lot of people work hours that exceed the hours the polls are open,” said Registrar Dolores Provencio.

California counties have been receiving record numbers of applications for absentee ballots because of a 2002 law that allows anyone — not just the elderly and the homebound — to permanently vote absentee.

But only 13 percent of registered voters in Imperial County have requested absentee ballots compared to 40 percent in Marin County.

Counties depend largely on local funding to operate their elections office and conduct registration drives. A recent infusion of federal and state money is mostly earmarked for replacing voting machines.

“We don’t have a person go out and promote voter registration drives because we’re so limited here,” said Provencio, who has only three full-time employees.

Marin County, by comparison, has a full-time staff of 10 people to serve a larger population — 246,000 to 149,000 — and far more eligible voters.

“While the office does not have a lot of people in it, there’s a community that we call on at election time,” including 20 part-time workers and 700 volunteers, Smith said. “They get engaged, involved and, as such, get the vote out.”

Voter registration is largely the responsibility of political parties. Democrats have a big edge on Republicans in registration in California: 44 percent to 37 percent, according to the PPIC.

But lack of political engagement has made recruiting minority voters a low priority.

Ramakrishnan said money that could have been spent in California this presidential year by the parties was diverted to more competitive states. “Another thing that’s happened to discourage spending is a large increase in independent voters,” Ramakrishnan said. “The parties like to know who they’re targeting.”

In the past decade, the number of “decline to state” or independent voters in California has increased from 1.5 million to 2.5 million even as turnout has declined.

In the 2002 primary, California slipped below the national voter turnout average for the first time in a decade.

Some analysts blamed the record low 34 percent participation of registered voters on lackluster support for Democratic Gov. Gray Davis and his Republican challengers.

Turnout jumped to 61 percent in the historic 2003 recall that swept Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger into office — but receded to 39 percent in this year’s primary.

In an effort to bolster voter participation, Schwarzenegger recently signed legislation ending California’s experiment with March primaries and returning the elections to June.

Davis’ election in 1998, which ended 16 years of GOP governors, was widely attributed to a rapid increase in minority voters, especially Latinos.

They were said to have become permanently politically energized by anger at Republican Gov. Pete Wilson’s endorsement in 1994 of Proposition 187. The voter-approved measure to deny public benefits to illegal immigrants was overturned by the courts in 1994.

But the minority share of the California electorate dropped from 36 percent in 1998 to 24 percent in 2002, according to exit polls. The white share rose from 64 percent to 76 percent.

The margin continued in this year’s primary. In Los Angeles County, where 40 percent of the state’s Latino voters reside, only 37 percent of registered voters turned out.

Turnout has been above the state average in recent years in Sacramento County — 72 percent in the 2000 presidential election, 66 percent for the gubernatorial recall and 50 percent in this year’s primary.

The county has a lower Latino voting population than other urban areas in the state. It did not pass the 5 percent federal threshold requiring the printing of Spanish-language ballots until after the 2000 census.

Fewer than 2,000 Spanish-language ballots have been requested this year.

“We still don’t have the numbers some other counties have,” said Registrar Jill LaVine. “This is something we’re going to have to build on.”

Smith, the Marin County registrar, laments other residents of the state are not as politically engaged as the people he serves.

“People who don’t vote, don’t have a political voice,” he said. “If they want to be heard, they darn well better get involved.”