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Santa Monica Voter Turnout Hits Record Low

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By Daniel Larios
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November 19, 2014 -- Despite a number of competitive local contests on the November 4 ballot, voters in Santa Monica largely stayed home as turnout in the bayside city hit a record low 34.83 percent, according to figures released by the Los Angeles County Registrar’s Office.

In an election that weighed the future of development and the possible fate of Santa Monica Airport, only 20,479 of the 58,803 registered Santa Monica voters went to the polls. That was a little more than half of the 38,177 voters (64.37 percent) who cast ballots in the 2010 midterm election.

Political experts interviewd by the Lookout blame the low turnout – reflected across the County, State and nation -- on non-competitive races and a dearth of life-changing issues on the ballot.  Locally, some blame a disinterested electorate put off by  negative campaigns.

“I think there are a few reasons,” said Sharon Gilpin, who ran successful campaigns for an anti-airport measure and for Council member Kevin McKeown. “First, there are more than a few new citizens of the City that probably registered but probably are not tuned in to local issues.

“So taking the time to find their polling place, wait in line and then vote on candidates and issues isn't worth their time,” Gilpin said. “Many of those new folks are 'young' and the youth just aren't voting.

Their issues are not on the ballot.” Gilpin also blames local campaigns that frustrated voters with a weath of mailers that were negative, and in some cases confusing. 

“There was this massive amount of information we expected people to digest in three weeks,” Gilpin said.  “If a voter was confused or frustrated they probably decided to skip voting. The council races were a bit negative this election, and negative campaigning depresses turnout.”

Turnout in LA County was equally low. Political observers noted that most of the candidates running for State and County seats belonged to the same party and generally agreed on the issues.

There was “little partisan competition,” said Dr. Fernando Guerra, a political science professor at Loyola Marymount University. “Without competition, people don't feel that it's worth coming out.

“Part of that is also a lack of ideological competition,” Guerra said  “There's great consensus in California. California is a very Democratic state and a lot of the values that the Democratic Party espouses are actually the majority's."

Gilpin agrees. “There was absolutely no diversity of ideas in the contests.....all Democrats all the time,” she said. “Splitting issue hairs is fodder for political junkies, but most of the public is bored by that exercise. An exciting contest pits philosophy versus philosophy.”

In additionm, there were few pressing issues on the State ballot to mobilize voters, acording to political experts.

“It’s pretty astonishing,” said Raphael Sonenshein, executive director of the Pat Brown Institute at Cal State LA. “I think a lot of it was that there were races on issues that no one knew about or cared about.”

"You have to have a reason to really drive you out to the polls," said Guerra. "You've got to explain to people that this is life-changing. There is not one race, not one initiative that is life-changing on the ballot."

Sonenshein believes the lack of a competitive race for governor, in which Jerry Brown easily won a historic fourth term, contributed to the low turnout.

“Without a compelling race at the top of the ticket, a lot of people didn’t feel a need to vote,” Sonenshein said.

The low-turnout in the County reflected a nationwide trend. In the state of New York, 32.5 percent of its 10.9 million voters went to the polls on November 4.  In Detroit, turnout was 31 percent of the city’s 509,000 voters.

In all, 36.4 percent of registered voters in the United States voted this election, marking the smallest percentage participation since 1942, when less than 34 percent went to the polls.

Former mayor and city council candidate Michael Feinstein believes Santa Monica voters were put off by attack ads and candidates failing to present a good case for being elected.

“While there were certainly state and national political dynamics in play that depressed local turnout, I felt that the negative campaigning by most of the major City Council candidates turned off large segments of local electorate,” Feinstein said.

“Unfortunately, most got to hear only what the candidates were against, not what they were for,” said Feinstein, who finished in eighth place. “That means the election process mostly failed us, because we didn't debate where we wanted to go as a community, only where we didn't.”

Voter turnout has been generally declining in recent years, but the drop has been particularly striking for special elections and municipal races.

While voter turnout is generally lower in midterm elections, 2014 was especially low in Santa Monica compared to previous midterm elections.

In the 2010, Santa Monica’s 64.37 percent voter turnout (38,177 ballots out of 59,214 registered voters.) marked a high for mid-term elections during the decade.

  In the 2006, voter turnout was 59.94 percent (34,440 ballots out of 57,455 registered voters).  In 2002, 54.6 percent of registered voters cast ballots (30,853 ballots out of 56,501 registered voters).

Presidential elections typically boost voter turnout, because they generate excitement and voters from both major parties feel there is more at stake.

In 2012, voter turnout in Santa Monica was 78.72 percent (47,945 out of 60,909); in 2008, voter turnout was 87.23 percent (50,912 out of 58,367); and in 2004 a record 83.62 percent of the voters turned out (49,627 out of 59,349)

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