The recent primary offered signs of improvement for California’s abysmally low voter turnout. Recent elections have seen some of the worst turnout in the state’s history. The 2014 election cycle was particularly dismal, but 2012 also set a new low for a presidential primary election. Moreover, California has been lagging behind other states in both registration and turnout.
However, there has been a large surge in new registrants over the last few months, and the California Secretary of State currently estimates that almost 9 million Californians participated in the 2016 presidential primary election, compared to only 4.5 million in 2014 and 5.3 million in 2012.
If we look at the share of voting-eligible residents who have registered in time for each of the last 18 primary elections, California’s registration rate has always fallen within a fairly narrow band—from a low of 66% in 1988 to a high of 75% in 1996. In this context, the 2016 registration rate might be seen as a disappointment. Compared to the same point in the 2012 primary election cycle, the registration rate has remained largely unchanged, though it is still comparatively high when viewed in the context of the past several decades.
How can we square this result with the reported surge in new registrants? The registration rate typically drops some between elections as county registrars purge voters who have moved or died from the registration rolls, and relatively few new voters sign up to take their place. This decline was especially large between fall 2014 and the beginning of the primary season this year. Given that baseline, a flat registration rate is consistent with a surge of new registrants, and must be considered something of a success.
More to the point, these registrants turned out to vote at a higher rate than we have seen in any primary since 2008. The estimated 8.9 million ballots translates to a turnout rate of about 50% among registered voters. That sits comfortably in the broad average of California’s presidential primary turnout, and marks a considerable improvement over 2012.
In fact, California’s presidential primary turnout now shows no clear sign of decline since 1984; it may even be holding its own relative to other states. But midterm turnout is a different story. There is a much longer downward trend for such elections, both viewed on their own and relative to trends in other states.
On balance, there are signs of recovery from the low turnout levels of 2012 and 2014, despite concerns that California’s late presidential primary would discourage participation. Whether this improvement will be sustained into the fall—and whether things will turn around for midterm elections in 2018—of course remains to be seen.