Two special elections were held in California on Tuesday, both for state Senate seats, and the enthusiasm among voters couldn’t have been more different.
In the Northern California’s 1st District, 26 percent of voters showed up to cast ballots. In the 33rd, which includes Long Beach and parts of southeast Los Angeles County, less than 7 percent showed up.
To put that in perspective, the third-place finisher in the 1st District race received more raw votes than the first-place finisher—Long Beach Councilwoman Lena Gonzalez—in the 33rd.
“I’d be hard-pressed to come up with two districts that are more different from one another,” said Rob Pyers, research director for the California Target Book, which provides comprehensive data to political professionals.
Part of the reason for the disparity is demographics: Certain groups are more likely to show up to the polls.
The 1st Senate District has nearly 41 percent registered Republicans compared to the 55 percent Democrats in the 33rd. The 1st is also majority white (79 percent) while the 33rd is majority Latino (70 percent).
“There’s no single factor, but traditionally certain voter groups are less reliable in voting than others,” Pyers said.
He said that includes younger voters, voters with less advanced education, the less affluent and Latino voters. There’s also a greater number of noncitizens in Southern California—and the 33rd District seems to hit all of those factors.
Looking at Census data, Pyers noted that it is the top district in the number of Spanish speakers at home, the third-highest in receiving public assistance, has the second-lowest percentage of high school graduates and second-highest Latino population of all 40 Senate Districts.
The 1st Senate District has the highest median age, the single lowest Latino population and ranks third in terms of high school graduates.
The 1st also has the highest percentage of registered Republicans (compared to the 33rd which has the fifth-lowest percentage of registered Republicans). Republican voters tend to vote more reliably than Democrats, Pyers said.
Location also plays a major role.
With the state capital and Silicon Valley to the north, Northern California is considered to be more politically active as a region, said Kim Alexander, president of the California Voter Foundation, a nonprofit that aims to improve the election process.
“I think it’s the culture,” Alexander said. “What animates Southern California is the entertainment industry. In Northern California there’s more awareness of policy impacts.”
Even the media coverage of elections is different between the northern and southern parts of the state, with Alexander pointing to the fact that television and radio stations help print publications provide news on elections in Northern California.
“Historically, there’s been much more media oversight of elections [in Northern California],” Alexander said.
Coverage of the 33rd state Senate District special election was very limited. Besides the Post, only a handful of local or regional outlets covered the race in depth.
While Northern California is not immune to the countrywide gutting of newsrooms, its own special election for the 1st state Senate District on Tuesday was reported on by multiple print, radio and television outlets.
For comparison, the 1st District spans 11 counties in northeastern California, including rural areas, with a population of just over 930,000. According to preliminary election results, over 156,000 people voted. Over 592,000 people are registered to vote.
The 33rd District includes cities along the 710 freeway, including Vernon to the north and most of Long Beach to the south, with a population of nearly 927,000. Preliminary figures show that just over 29,000 voters cast their ballots. There are over 422,000 registered voters in the area.
Demographics aside, these types of elections in and of themselves typically draw low voter turnout.
“Special elections are their own challenge,” Alexander said. “It’s not unusual to see single digit turnouts in special elections.”
The concept of low voter turnout—whether it’s a special, midterm or general election—isn’t new, which is why the state Legislature passed the California Voter Participation Rights Act a few years ago. It requires municipalities with low voter turnout to restructure their elections to match-up with statewide contests.
However, Alexander believes there should be reforms to “stop the cascade of special elections.”
Besides it being costly to taxpayers (this special election is estimated to cost Los Angeles County $2.93 million, according to officials), she believes it’s unfair that sitting officeholders can run for another office too.
“In a normal workplace that would never be tolerated but because this workplace is held by other politicians, they tolerate it because they may hope to do their own running,” Alexander said.
She recommends a law that states any state officeholder who runs for a seat in an election must also leave their current seat open in that same election.
Ricardo Lara, for example, successfully ran last November for state insurance commissioner. Under Alexander’s recommendation, his seat as the 33rd state Senate District representative would have also been open in that same election.
Gonzalez, the Democratic candidate, is heavily favored to win the June runoff against Republican Cudahy Councilman Jack Guerrero (the District is majority Democrat)—and that means her district may see a special election as well.
During a March 5 meeting of the Elections Oversight Committee, a plan was discussed for what steps the city clerk’s office would need to take if Gonzalez vacated her 1st Council District seat. Regardless of whether the city or the county runs that election, it would take place in November. A cost estimate was not revealed.
The mayor would be able to appoint a “caretaker” to run the district in the interim.
While talks about making Election Day a federal holiday or on the weekend have been making the rounds, Alexander noted that reports have shown about an equal amount of voter turnout and officials run the risk that people go out of town if it becomes a holiday.
She doesn’t believe online voting, or voting from one’s phone, is better either, citing security issues and the preservation of secrecy ballots.
In Los Angeles County, officials are working on a pilot voting program that will switch out polling places with vote centers. That would mean less polling locations but vote center that are more accessible and open for longer periods. Plans are to make it operational by 2020.
“I think it will be an interesting experiment,” Alexander said of the vote centers. “It’s probably the most significant change to happen in California in a generation.”