Politics, government and public life for Southern California

California election turnout: In search of a million missing voters

Polling Election Day 2012

Mae Ryan/KPCC

Voters cast their ballots in the McDonald's Playroom in Hollywood on November 6th, 2012.

Among all the numbers emerging from Election Day, here's a significant one: About one-million fewer Californians appear to have turned out to vote this year than in 2008, according to exit polls and the California Secretary of State.

Turnout in the state is expected to be close to 70 percent, according to a Field Poll estimate. However the actual number won't be known until counties finish processing mail-in and provisional ballots – expected no later than mid-December. Turnout in the 2008 election was 77.5 percent.

While all voting groups turned out in lower absolute numbers, the percentage of different groups' participation as voters reflects the growing diversity of California's population and the increasing willingness of some traditionally low-turnout groups to cast ballots.

Black voters were not a disproportionate part of that missing million. The rate of participation among African American voters remained constant in the state – about eight percent of the electorate.

Voting is especially strong among black voters ages 18 to 29, said Peter Levine, who studies the youth vote as director of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University.

"African-American youth have very high turnout, often the highest turnout of any young group, so they are more than pulling their weight among young voters," he said. "And their desire to vote is not just a product of enthusiasm for Barack Obama because it goes back to a big jump that first occurred in 2004."

Some pollsters said young voters weren't as engaged this year. But, at least in California, young voters of all races and ethnicities turned out in strong numbers on Tuesday – making up 28 percent of the electorate – that is eight points higher than in 2008.

"It looks like fewer people voted in California in 2012 than in 2008, but a higher proportion of people who voted were young," Levine said.

That's partly because the millennial generation is more engaged in everything – politics, news, social media. But the political parties also reached out to young voters. Prop 30 supporters mobilized to get college-age and other young voters to support that tax measure's promises to forestall budget cuts and tuition increases.

What about Latino voters? Were they a big part of the missing million?

University of California, Irvine political scientist Louis DiSipio said exit polls indicate Latinos increased their share of ballots cast in the presidential election to 22 percent of the electorate, up four points from the last one.
 
"The electorate in California in 2012 got closer to the diversity of the population as a whole," DiSipio said.

The participation of Asian-American voters was up to 11 percent, two points more than in 2008, according to exit polls. In California, voters can get language assistance at polling places in a half-dozen Asian languages.

University of California, Riverside political scientist Karthick Ramakrishnan said Asian-American voters were particularly motivated by the education-centric campaign for Prop 30, and a desire to support Asian candidates.

Which brings us to the white vote.

Non-Hispanic whites remain the biggest portion of the electorate, but their voting numbers are swiftly declining. They represented only about 55 percent of the turnout in California–down eight points from 2008.

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Former CA Lt. Gov. Mervyn Dymally remembered at service

Mervyn Dymally funeral

Sharon McNary/KPCC

Pallbearers escort the casket of former California Lt. Gov. Mervyn Dymally at his funeral at Holy Cross Mortuary, Oct. 17, 2012.

Funeral services were held Wednesday in Culver City for Mervyn M. Dymally, the "Godfather of African-American politics." He died last week at the age of 86.

California's only black lieutenant governor served during Gov. Jerry Brown's first term, and he was credited by many as helping to build an indpendent African-American power base in the state.

The Trinidad-born teacher advanced swiftly in American politics after he became a citizen in the 1950s. He first served as an Assemblyman, winning election in 1962.

Kenneth Orduna, Dymally's longtime chief political operative, recalled his friend as a simple man.

"Of all his accomplishments and positions he held, the chairman was a humble man and on the inside a country boy from Trinidad," Orduna said. "He had a burning desire to help people no matter what their station in life may have been. The chairman 's life was about doing the people's business."

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