Why Didn’t More Californians Vote?

PUBLISHED JUN 9, 2022 12:00 A.M.
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A voter fills out their ballot at a voting site at the Hamilton School gymnasium in central Fresno on June 7, 2022.

A voter fills out their ballot at a voting site at the Hamilton School gymnasium in central Fresno on June 7, 2022.   Photo by Larry Valenzuela, CalMatters/CatchLight Local


California mailed out more than 22 million ballots to registered voters ahead of Tuesday’s primary election. But as of Wednesday, just 3.5 million had been counted.

The tally is far from complete — county elections offices will accept through June 14 ballots postmarked by June 7, and the Secretary of State has until July 15 to certify the results of statewide races. 

So, although turnout stood at just 16% on Wednesday — stoking fears California could break its low-turnout record of 25.17% set in 2014 — things could change significantly in the coming weeks. Los Angeles County, for example, estimates it still has 400,000 votes left to count. 

Elections guru Paul Mitchell told my colleague Ben Christopher that, based on the historical gap between the initial ballot count and the certified total, “The way I think about it … you have to add 9 or 10 points. So maybe it’s 28%. But who knows! We have to be humble.” 

Nevertheless, “it seems safe to say that turnout in (Tuesday’s) primary will not be held up as a shining example of citizen civic engagement,” the nonpartisan California Target Book, which tracks election data, wrote in a Wednesday email.

All that makes it difficult to ascertain what, exactly, Californians are feeling. President Joe Biden suggested that San Francisco voters recalling progressive District Attorney Chesa Boudin is an indication that “both parties have to step up and do something about crime, as well as gun violence.”

But that may be too simplistic: As CalMatters’ Alexei Koseff reports, the message from voters was far more complicated than the national narrative that California rejected criminal justice reform outright. Although Boudin was recalled and some progressive prosecutor candidates lost in Tuesday’s primary, others won.

One possible takeaway: Voters “want criminal justice reform, they want thoughtful reform, but they want it in a way that doesn’t compromise their public safety,” Greg Totten, CEO of the California District Attorneys Association, told Alexei.

The San Francisco Chronicle editorial board also pushed back on the notion that voters sent a clear signal on crime.

In a scathing editorial, the board wrote: “It was apathy and resignation, not overt anger or a definitive vision, that ruled the day in San Francisco and across California in Tuesday’s election. And that’s simply unacceptable. Not voting because you’re tired of the state of things or because you don’t believe it will make a difference are self-fulfilling prophecies. There is no winning when the overwhelming majority of us disengage from our collective future.”

Reading that argument reminded me of one of my favorite passages from the novel “Cloud Atlas,” in which the narrator imagines his critics telling him, “Only as you gasp your dying breath shall you understand, your life amounted to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean!” 

Read more of “Why Didn’t More Californians Vote?“ on CalMatters.

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