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Will Low Turnout Favor 'No'?

October 11, 1998|Steve Scott | Steve Scott is political editor for California Journal, a nonpartisan magazine covering California government and politics

SACRAMENTO — The discomfiting haze of voter apathy is steadily descending upon next month's California elections. A recent Field poll suggests a mere 44% of California citizens of voting age will cast ballots, which would be the third-lowest turnout in the last 50 years. Some analysts believe even these numbers are optimistic. The reasons aren't difficult to fathom. The gubernatorial contest is a matchup between two white-male suits who spend most of their time with trivialities. There's no hot-button ballot initiative to excite people. There is the depressing stain of national scandal that, while currently favoring Republicans, could siphon away frustrated voters on both sides.

The effect of a low turnout on partisan contests has been the subject of much speculation. But in this state, men and women running for office are not the only people keeping tabs on turnout projections. A separate army of consultants, contributors and volunteers are gauging the effect that low turnout would have on their "candidates": the initiatives.

Does a low turnout favor certain types of initiatives? Are voters in low-turnout elections more inclined to vote "yes" or "no"? What do these tendencies portend for next month's battles over electricity, tobacco taxes and Indian gaming?

To begin, it's important to identify the characteristics of the various electorates. Lower-turnout elections tend to be more heavily weighted with older, whiter and more conservative voters. The Field survey, for instance, projects that the percentage of GOP voters will exceed by 3% the percentage of Californians who registered Republican. Low-turnout contests also tend to have a larger concentration of "high propensity" voters, those who cast their ballots year in and year out, in primaries as well as general elections.

The generic conservatism of low-turnout elections can often swing the results in candidate elections. But the electorate's overall ideological cast doesn't necessarily translate to votes taken on ballot initiatives. In primary elections, where turnout runs between 10% and 15% below that of November elections, "conservative" measures fared only slightly better than "liberal" ones between 1976 and 1990. The conservatives won 60% of their propositions, liberals won half theirs. Since 1976, liberal initiatives have done slightly better in lower-turnout primaries than they have in the general-election contests, a blow to backers who often target November in hopes of finding a more accommodating (i.e., liberal) electorate. Similarly, conservative measures have done not that much better in lower-turnout primaries than they have in general elections, even though their sponsors will sometimes target primaries in hopes of finding a higher concentration of conservatives.

If the electorate's ideological cast is not a reliable predictor of an initiative's success, does a low turnout matter in these contests? You bet your union dues it does. Just ask Pete Wilson. This year, Wilson put his political weight behind Proposition 226, an initiative that would have restricted the ability of labor unions to divert members' dues to political activities. The plan seemed ingenious: Put 226 up in June, when there are more conservatives voting and, once it passes, overwhelm the underfunded Democrats in the November campaign. Everything worked right for a while. The measure had strong early support in the polls, and the election itself wound up with the lowest turnout of eligible voters in decades. But when the votes were counted, the grand design was a colossal dud.

Much of the credit for the defeat of the proposition went to the unprecedented organizational efforts undertaken by unions and their members. But it was the low turnout that made those union votes count as much as they did. A Los Angeles Times exit poll after the June primary showed nonunion voters favoring the measure. In a higher-turnout general election, there would have been more such voters to counterbalance the heavy turnout of union members. But in a primary, there just weren't enough nonunion voters to make up the difference.

Bottom line: Low turnout favors those who can mobilize large numbers of occasional voters around a single issue. The smaller the universe, the larger the impact.

The relative success of liberal initiatives between 1976 and 1990 also suggests another, even more intriguing trend as it pertains to voter turnout and initiatives. Jim Schultz, author of a 1996 how-to guide called "The Initiative Cookbook," suggests that the electorate in low-turnout contests may actually be more inclined to look beyond the TV-commercial blitz that invariably accompanies high-profile initiative campaigns.

"You have a less confused electorate," says Schultz. "They're not as subject to TV and are more inclined to be the ones sitting around the kitchen table going over the ballot pamphlet."

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