SACRAMENTO — California’s 2020 presidential primary officially entered the history books Friday, as state officials certified a final tally and a rate of voter turnout that, while one of the highest in recent elections, still saw fewer than half of the state’s registered voters cast a ballot.
In all, 46.89% of registered voters cast ballots in the March 3 primary, which was moved up from June with hopes that turnout would be high and presidential candidates would be forced to address issues mattering most to Californians. Turnout was noticeably lower in Los Angeles County, where 38% of voters showed up. It was one of three counties tied for the second-lowest turnout in the state.
A shift to sending every voter a ballot to be cast remotely — and expecting it will be — could also put enormous pressure on vote counting. A variety of California laws have allowed voters as much leeway as possible for returning ballots at the last minute. Millions more of these late votes, cast by citizens who aren’t sure of their choices until the final hours, could prove problematic.
“The COVID-19 infection curve is not the only curve we need to flatten. We need to flatten the voting curve,” said Kim Alexander, president of the nonpartisan California Voter Foundation. “We need to encourage people to stagger their return of those ballots.”
The influx of 11th-hour ballots could be unprecedented. Rob Pyers, the research director of the nonpartisan California Target Book, pointed out last month in a social media posting that historical data from previous November elections suggest some 6 million ballots could remain uncounted on election day. In their letter to Newsom, elections officials asked him to extend the number of days they have to count ballots, similar to the extension he ordered for the March election.
Whether turnout for the March election met the expectations of those who championed an early presidential primary is unclear. A slightly larger share of the state’s registered voters participated in the 2016 primary, many showing up for that year’s race between Democrats Hillary Clinton and Sanders. The highest turnout for a presidential primary in the last quarter of a century was in February 2008 when Clinton beat then-Illinois Sen. Barack Obama in the Democratic primary and Sen. John McCain won the Republican contest.
The 2008 primary was unique, though, in that both major political parties had competitive primaries. Not so this time, Alexander said.
“The March primary wasn’t for everyone,” she said. “There’s a question as to how much you can expect turnout will increase when there’s only one partisan primary at stake.”
But Alexander pointed out that even interested voters could have been left out in numbers large enough to make a difference. Unaffiliated voters, who are registered with “no party preference,” had to take special action to be able to cast a ballot in the Democratic primary and were excluded from the GOP contest. But not all of those voters realized the need for an additional step until the end, when some communities — not just in Los Angeles — experienced long lines in the hours just before the polls closed on March 3.
“It’s not a surprise people are going to be deterred by all of that,” she said.
Key to the efforts to move most, or close to all, voters to participating remotely in November is the cost.
Counties, whose leaders have long criticized state leaders for imposing election mandates without also providing enough funding, are under enormous fiscal pressures from public health efforts to lessen the spread of the coronavirus. Sending more ballots by mail incurs costs related to postage — including the state law requiring prepaid return postage — and means possible delays by the U.S. Postal Service could further affect the need for elections workers to count those ballots long after election day.
“It’s now my job to advocate for as much funding as possible,” said Berman, whose legislation to make the change has not yet been reviewed for potential costs. “That’s going to be very difficult.” (full story)