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California voters largely ignored June primary; Congress has some theories why

Voter turnout in June was the lowest ever for a California presidential primary. One member of Congress says voters are asking,
Voter turnout in June was the lowest ever for a California presidential primary. One member of Congress says voters are asking, "What difference does it make?”
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Californians stayed home for June’s primary election in record numbers. Two out of three registered voters did not cast a ballot, the lowest turnout ever in a California presidential primary.

Political experts — those who run for office every two years — have a few theories about why voters were so turned off and whether things will be different in November.

Democrats had plenty of reasons: St. Helena's Mike Thompson blames it on the lack of suspense — "We knew who our presidential standard bearer was going to be"; Jackie Speier of San Mateo figures it's voter fatigue because the "campaigning has been going on for so long"; Anaheim's Loretta Sanchez says members of Congress are also to blame because "we all saved our money for a general election."

Democratic Congressman Jim Costa of Fresno points out one other thing missing from the June ballot: propositions. "That usually attracts voter interest." 

Republican Congressman John Campbell of Irvine puts the blame for that squarely on Sacramento politics: "Because the California legislature, controlled by Democrats, moved all the initiatives to November, which I think was a very poor move."

In some races, more Democrats stayed home than Republicans. In the 32nd Congressional district, which includes much of the San Gabriel Valley, registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by 20 percentage points. But Grace Napolitano, who was running in a re-drawn district, only beat her GOP opponent, David Miller, by fewer than two-thousand votes.

The seven-term incumbent admits she was complacent. Napolitano says she was "unfortunately beset by family illness, I did not do much in the primary. Almost nothing." She sent out just one mailer, "which landed on Saturday before the primary. And did nothing else. Posters, maybe." Napolitano plans to be much more visible between now and November when — because of California’s new election rules — she’ll once again face Miller.

Democrat Zoe Lofgren of San Jose says there’s a perennial problem with her party’s voters. "Republicans," she says, "are more persistent voters than Democrats." She doesn't know why that is, but says historically that's been the case in California. "If there’s something that really is of interest," she says Democrats show up. "And we certainly think that’s going to happen in the fall." 

But retiring GOP Congressman Elton Gallegly of Simi Valley believes Barack Obama isn’t as much “of interest” to Democrats as he was four years ago: "Those that turned out, particularly in much larger numbers last time, I think have been a little disappointed with some of the 'hope and change.'” 

Republican Congressman Tom McClintock of Lake Tahoe says it’s a problem with incumbents of any party.  He voted for a third-party candidate in 2004: "I was one of those Republicans who was thoroughly and totally disgusted with George W. Bush." He says that’s what’s happening to a lot of Democrats today. 

House Republican Whip Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield says the Presidential race may not have much effect on the 53 Representative contests in California. He says Congressional races create their own urgency. "So when people get excited, they turn out for that." He says if voters are disenchanted with President Obama, "they’ll just skip and not vote for him."

That’s why both the Democratic and Republican parties have each spent or set aside $8 million just for TV ads in California Congressional races. And that doesn’t count the money allocated for get-out-the-vote efforts or the dollars added by political action committees. 

Daniel Scarpinato with the National Republican Congressional Committee says redistricting has changed everything. "California has not had competitive races in decades," he says. "And as a result, Republicans are investing more resources in California than we ever have. Ever."

But given the bottom-of-the-barrel approval ratings for Congress, will it be money well spent? Democrat Maxine Waters says voters may skip what’s called “the down-ballot vote” — particularly those for Congress, a body stuck in perpetual partisan battles. She says with all the media about how Congress "can’t get along, and we can’t get anything accomplished, they’re throwing up their hands and they’re saying, 'What difference does it make?'” 

Which is the largely unspoken fear for anyone who toils in Washington: that the disconnect between the electorate and the elected has become permanent — and voters will find something better to do with their time than cast a ballot.