Barely 21 percent of eligible California voters cast ballots in last fall’s election, which means about 80 percent of the eligible populace should have no complaints even if they don’t like the performances of those who were elected for the next two or four years.
It’s easy to conclude this was because of apathy and ignorance: after all, polls showed about 40 percent of Californians weren’t even aware Gov. Jerry Brown was running for reelection. Only 41 percent of those registered to vote bothered to do anything.
One reason for the low turnout is the old shibboleth that one vote doesn’t count, or at least one vote doesn’t count for much. The truism is being repeated again today, with many cities heading into elections in March. But this truism just isn’t true, no matter how many times it’s repeated.
Take a look at Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, who travels his city and the world in elegant, expensive suits with an air of confidence that suggests he has the support of a massive majority of Angelenos. He might. But no one knows, because only about 13 percent of eligible voters cast ballots two years ago, when he won with about 54 percent of the vote over former city Controller Wendy Greuel. This means Garcetti was elected by just shy of 7 percent of eligible voters, which in turn means Greuel could have won with only a few more votes in each precinct.
Look also at California Attorney General Kamala Harris, the former San Francisco district attorney who won reelection by a wide margin last fall and is now running for the U.S. Senate. Things weren’t so easy four years earlier, when she didn’t learn she’d won until four weeks after Election Day. She beat Republican Steve Cooley, then the Los Angeles County District Attorney in their battle of DAs by about 40,000 votes, or less than two votes per precinct. Who says individual votes lack impact?
Just as dramatic, but on a smaller scale, was last fall’s 466-vote win by Democratic community activist Patty Lopez in the San Fernando Valley over entrenched Assemblyman Raul Bocanegra in an intra-party battle. Again, about two votes per precinct proved decisive. Nearby, in an Assembly district in the South Bay area of Los Angeles County, Republican David Hadley beat incumbent Democrat Al Muratsuchi by 706 votes, or an average of slightly more than two votes in each of the district’s 256 precincts.
But the tightest race of the year, decided by just two votes, came in the Central California city of Madera, where Brent Fernandes defeated incumbent school board member Jose Rodriguez by two votes. At times as the vote count see-sawed for weeks after the election, only one vote separated the two contenders. The final outcome means that if just three more persons had voted for Rodriguez, he’d have won. And that if a single vote had been reversed, the race would have been a tie, to be resolved by a coin toss or some other means.
Madera apparently liked close elections this year, as another school board seat was decided by a margin of just 33 votes.
This is all firm proof that anyone calling a single vote meaningless is just blowing smoke. There are always extremely close races in California, but it’s never possible to predict where they will occur.
So low turnouts magnify the meaning of each vote that actually is cast. They also stand the entire concept of representative government on its head. Lopez, the narrowly elected new assemblywoman, drew votes from just 22,750 persons, or less than five percent of the people who live in her district. Mayor Garcetti had the support of not many more.
Can these kinds of results make citizens feel involved in civic affairs? How can any individual not feel important in the Madera Unified School District, where a vote or two turned things around?
How healthy can California public life and public policy be when so few care enough about it even to cast a vote? These are questions to ponder as San Francisco, Los Angeles and many other cities head toward their spring elections, where every eligible voter would be wise to remember the words of Thomas Jefferson: “In a democracy, the people get precisely the government they deserve.”