With just over a week to go before Election Day, the Golden State is gearing up for -- or perhaps, altogether ignoring -- what could be its lowest-ever turnout in a primary for governor.
The top of the ticket looks like a yawn, as most experts see two contenders vying for the right to lose to Gov. Jerry Brown in November. And despite California's "top-two" primary system opening the ballot to all voters, a dearth of competitive races, the absence of citizen initiatives and general voter apathy have changed the character of midterm primaries.
Those few who are likely to vote in a primary like this year's generally are "older, wealthier, whiter, more likely to be homeowners, more educated ... and more ideological true believers," said Corey Cook, director of the University of San Francisco's Leo T. McCarthy Center for Public Service and the Common Good. "Not at all reflecting the population of the state."
It was a whole different ballgame half a century ago, when an average of 63 percent of California's registered voters came out to nominate candidates for governor from 1950 to 1966. But a long slow decline that began around 1980 eventually brought the state to an all-time low in 2010's primary, when only a third of registered voters cast ballots.
Four years later, more and more voters may be sitting out the primary.
"I think this might be an important election but I'm not sure," said Enrico Howard Sr., 49, of Hayward, noting he usually votes only in presidential elections and hasn't paid this primary much mind yet. "My ballot is still sitting on my dining room table."In the Bay Area this year, the race for San Jose mayor and Rep. Mike Honda's fight to keep his seat are relatively hot contests, but those are just isolated pockets of voter interest. Down-ticket statewide races rarely generate much heat, and this year is no exception; the races for state controller and secretary of state may be competitive, but they won't attract many voters to the polls on their own.
Meanwhile, the top-two primary system and online voter registration haven't created the bumper crop of new voters their supporters had hoped for, said Eric McGhee, a Public Policy Institute of California research fellow and an expert in voting behavior and political participation.
"I wouldn't be optimistic," he said. "People seem to be really jazzed by the competitive contest between the parties, and primary elections don't really offer that."
At least, they didn't until California adopted its top-two primary system, in which voters of any party affiliation can choose from among all candidates. "But I don't know yet whether voters are seeing it that way or are still operating in that Republican-Democrat world," McGhee said. "There's some crossover voting, but a lot of people are still making decisions within each party. That may change over time and that may get people more excited ... but I think that's only likely to happen for statewide races."
Independent voters historically "are not usually that jazzed about showing up for a primary election and usually need something to help get them there," he said.
Citizen-initiated statewide ballot measures often provided that added draw in the past. But a 2011 law moved such measures to November general elections or special statewide elections called by the Legislature, which have significantly higher turnouts. "The idea of direct democracy is to involve as many voters as possible," Brown wrote in his signing message. "This bill accomplishes that objective."
That's true, but it also gave potential primary voters even less to get excited about, said Thad Kousser, a UC San Diego associate professor and political expert: "It helps California democracy but it makes the disease even worse."
Kousser said term limits also might affect how exciting or boring voters find such primaries. "Everyone's waiting for seats to come open at the top of the ticket -- the real tough challengers are not going to take on Jerry Brown now; they know term limits will take him out in 2018."
New poll numbers from the Public Policy Institute of California show just how unenthusiastic Californians are about this election.
Of 901 likely primary voters surveyed May 8 through 15 -- less than a month before the election -- only 46 percent said they were following news about the candidates for governor closely. That's far lower than the 67 percent who said the same in May 2010, or the 68 percent in May 2006.
The new poll also found 53 percent are satisfied with their choices for governor in this primary, while 32 percent are not satisfied and 15 percent are unsure. The poll's margin of error among likely primary voters was plus or minus 4.9 percentage points.