Why didn’t anyone vote in California on Tuesday?

Something amazing happened in California on Tuesday: Hardly anyone came out to vote.

Not no one, of course. Even low turnout in California means lots of voters due to the state's sheer size. But California has historically overperformed in primary races. We anticipated over 5 million voters when we wrote about the primary on Monday, based on historic trends. Instead, only about 3.2 million people voted according to preliminary counts, plunging turnout to 18.3 percent of the state's registered voters. That could increase as more ballots are counted, but according to an expert quoted by the Sacramento Bee, only to between 20 and 23 percent.


California Governor Candidate Tim Donnelly casts his vote on Tuesday. (AP Photo/The Sun, Eric Reed)

We looked at data from seven other states that have held primaries so far in 2014. (The states: Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Nebraska, North Carolina, Ohio, and Texas.) In four of the eight states, the 2014 turnout was the lowest in a primary since at least 2000. But if you look at how the 2014 turnout in each state compares with the 2000 to 2012 average, California's drop is much more noticeable.

In a way, though, California is just coming more into line with those other states. Its primary turnout has fallen over time, as the graphs below show but most of the other states that have already voted this year are consistently lower. Even at 18.3 percent, California saw the third highest turnout of the eight states we looked at, higher even than states with much more interesting primary contests, like North Carolina.

Why the big drop this year? The Los Angeles Times' Mark Z. Barabak has a theory: voters weren't mad about anything.

For the more casual voter, turning out on election day, or dropping a ballot in the mail, requires some greater incentive beyond a sense of duty. It may be inspirational: a candidate breaking down historic barriers of race, gender or ethnicity. It may be practical: a ballot measure that directly affects his or her personal life or pocketbook.

Often, though, it’s a boiling anger and spleen-venting desire for change.

That doesn't explain the apparent longer-term trend, however. Maybe the Golden State is moving away from being the golden child in civic participation. In the 1950s and 1960s, turnout was over 60 percent, regardless of whether or not there was a presidential race. Those days, it seems fair to assume, are over.

Philip Bump writes about politics for The Fix. He previously wrote for The Wire, the news blog of The Atlantic magazine. He has contributed to The Daily Beast, The Atlantic, The Daily, and the Huffington Post. Philip is based in New York City.
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