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Are Some Counties Bucking the Low-Turnout Trend?

Eric McGhee December 15, 2014

A record-low 31% of Californians eligible to vote cast ballots in the November election, according to data finalized by the secretary of state Friday. (I prefer to use the share of residents eligible to register rather than the share of registered voters because it better captures the true potential electorate. But my use of this share does not affect the conclusions I draw here.)

But turnout was not so low everywhere. In fully 35 of California’s 58 counties, turnout was above the previous statewide low (36%, in 2002). And in two very small counties—Alpine and Sierra—turnout was actually higher than 50%.

The high-turnout counties were generally rural. Total turnout in the 20 smallest counties in the state was 39%, compared to just 27% in the 5 largest. Also, turnout tended to be lower in Southern California and the Central Valley. All 12 counties with turnout below the statewide average—Fresno, Imperial, Kern, Kings, Los Angeles, Merced, Riverside, San Bernardino, San Joaquin, Stanislaus, Tulare, and Yuba—are in one of those two areas.

All the same, it would be a mistake to see low turnout as a regional problem. In every single county, turnout was at least 4 and as many as 17 percentage points lower in 2014 than in 2010. In fact, since 1990, turnout in gubernatorial elections has declined in every county except those same two outliers, Alpine and Sierra.

In short, whatever has been depressing turnout in California’s gubernatorial elections seems to have a fairly broad geographic scope. Participation is better in some counties than others, but turnout has been sliding in all areas of the state.

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