Fewer voters, more elections

Posted: Mar 13, 2007 7:01 PM

Thanks to the 2003 gubernatorial recall and the 2005 special election, there has been at least one statewide election in California every year since 2002. Before the special election, wags were agog about "voter fatigue."

Make that voter flight. California Secretary of State Debra Bowen released the latest voter registration numbers yesterday, and the news is not good. California lost 1 million registered voters between 2005 and 2007. In a press release, Bowen explained that while part of the drop can be attributed to removing "deadwood" from voter rolls, "the state's population is continuing to grow, and the number of registered voters isn't."

The number of registered voters fell to 15.7 million from 16.7 million. There are fewer Democrats (6.7 million from 7.2 million), fewer Republicans (5.4 million down from 5.7 million) and even 20,000 fewer decline-to-state (fewer than 3 million) voters.

So what are the solons in Sacramento doing? Trying to make things worse. The Legislature just passed a measure, which Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger seems all but certain to sign, to create two primaries next year, a presidential primary on Feb. 5 and the usual California primary in June.

Add the November general election, quipped Bob Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles, and it still averages out to at least one election per year. Stern supports the early primary because, he says, it will give Californians a say in the presidential nominations -- and that's a good thing because "presidential politics turn people on" and get them interested in politics.

But considering California's voter fatigue, more say could mean fewer voters. With the exception of some GOP lawmakers who voted against the early primary because of the $60 million to $90 million cost to counties, Democratic and Republican biggies have been behind the early primary campaign. As California Democratic Party Chairman Art Torres said in a statement, "During the 2004 election cycle, candidates withdrew $182 million in campaign cash from the 'California ATM,' but not a penny of it came back to be spent here. An early primary changes that dynamic."

Changes the dynamic? Yes, but the new dynamic could be that an early state primary -- with California, New York, New Jersey, Florida and Illinois in the game -- could have the whole country hating all the White House wannabes by November 2008.

The dent in my argument: Democratic strategist Katie Merrill points out that there always is a drop in voter registration three years after a presidential election. Merrill also acknowledged that the percentage of Californians who vote has been declining, saying, "I definitely think there was fatigue that influenced the turnout in the primary of 2006." In that election, 23 percent of eligible -- or 34 percent of registered -- voters went to the polls.

If the governor signs the early primary bill, the next California primary could make 2006 seem like a blowout affair.

Tony Quinn, a political analyst and co-editor of the Target Book, predicts that after a hot February presidential contest, perhaps fewer than 10 percent of registered voters will show up for a June primary. Just this month, the Los Angeles primary for city council and school board attracted a sorry 7 percent of registered voters.

The trade-off could be that more Californians vote for president, but fewer vote for congressional and legislative races. And if fewer than one in 10 citizens decide who represents you in Sacramento and Washington, how are you better off?

The worst of it is, Democratic legislative leaders jammed through the early primary because they want to put a companion measure on the February ballot to extend term limits so that they can run for re-election in 2008. "In five minutes, their carriage is going to turn into a pumpkin," Quinn noted, so they came up with an early primary. He calls it "the Cinderella primary."

I've been having second thoughts about term limits, but this bill proves that Sacto pols don't deserve to keep their jobs.