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California’s ‘Elite Voter’ Syndrome: Slim Segment of State Population to Decide Next Week’s Election
OAKLAND -- As a community college student with a son in first grade, Lionel Ford, 25, supports Proposition 1D. Both his school, Laney College, and his son’s, Emerson Elementary, would benefit from the proposed $10.4 billion bond measure to spruce up public-school facilities.
But Ford won't have a say in whether the schools get more money, because he’s not registered to vote Tuesday.
"I'm like a lot of minorities. I feel a lot of them don't benefit me," Ford said of most ballot measures. "I know that's not good."
Ford, who is African American and a renter, is not alone in a state where an increasing number of people are not voting, and where those who vote rarely represent the state’s demographics as a whole.
Only 35 percent of adults are expected to vote Tuesday, and most will be homeowners who are older, whiter and wealthier than the general population, according to a recent Public Policy Institute of California study, "California's Exclusive Electorate."
That means the most expensive public works bond package in California history is not guaranteed to pass, although the vast majority of Californians support the spending; a minority of Republicans in Congressional District 11 could re-elect U.S. Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Tracy, despite the area's changing demographics; and special interests will likely sink Proposition 86, the tobacco tax that would increase health care spending, which most Californians support.
It's a worrisome trend, political analysts say, and one with broad implications for the state.
"When you have one group voting to make policies for everyone, and the other group tends ... to be at the bottom of the ladder, you don't always know that the policies are going to be kind, or altruistic,” said Larry Gerston, professor of political science at San Jose State University.
TREND WITH A LONG HISTORY
The flood of immigrants into California in the last decade is a major factor in the voter disparity, experts said. The state's population increased to more than 36 million this year, due in large part to foreign immigrants, most of whom are ineligible to vote.
Only 56 percent of California's adults are now registered voters, down from 65 percent in 1994.
“Based on what we know about the demographics of the state, we expect the disparity between voters in the adult population to grow over time,” said Mark Baldassare, the report’s author.
Low voter turnout also stems from Proposition 13, the 1978 ballot measure that limited property tax increases, said Peter Schrag, a journalist and California historian. People generally get involved in the electoral process through local politics, but the tax limitations mean that less can actually be decided on a local level, he said.
"That erodes the local nexus for political engagement," Schrag said. "It means you're less juiced up about voting because it doesn't affect you in the pocketbook."
WHY NOT VOTE?
Many non-voters say they are aware of the voting disparity, but they either can’t vote because they aren't citizens and or, if they’re eligible voters, they don’t vote because they feel their vote doesn’t count.
Maria Velasquez, 30, of Richmond, doesn’t vote because she can’t. Velasquez trekked eight days across the desert from Mexico into the United States 13 years ago in order to make a better life for herself. That life now includes long days spent painting appliances at a local factory and fearing for the safety of her family.
“Here there’s a lot of violence and a lot of drugs,” she said. “And much discrimination … The people who don’t want to vote are afraid.”
Voting “doesn't really make a difference," said Tuvai Sua, 28, an eligible voter from East Oakland. "A lot of stuff don't change."
Marcus Sanders, 20, a student at Laney College who lives in the Fruitvale district of Oakland, has only been eligible to vote for several years but already feels disillusioned about elections.
"They say your vote counts, but every time I vote, it doesn't," he said.
Non-voters also cited confusion as a reason for not turning out on Election Day.
Even regular voters have trouble staying informed, with so many races and propositions on the ballot, said Bianca Mona, 26, a San Francisco resident and a registered voter.
"I usually leave them blank," she said of the propositions. "I think people do that because the terminology is so tricky."
MISREPRESENTATION & SPECIAL INTERESTS
Whatever the reasons for low turnout among eligible voters, Californians are not accurately represented at the polls, said Dan Schnur, a political science instructor at the University of California at Berkeley.
"More and more you're going to see a small group of voters who don't necessarily support the interests of the state as a whole, making political decisions for the rest of the state," Schnur said.
For example, 60 percent of Californians -- and 70 percent of nonvoters -- support more state spending on health care. Yet Proposition 86, a tobacco tax that would go to fund hospitals and health insurance programs, is likely to go down Tuesday. According to a Nov. 2 Field Poll, the measure is in a dead heat with opposition and support both at 45 percent. That's down from the 63 percent that supported the tax in a July poll, before major tobacco companies and anti-tax lobbyists spent more than $60 million campaigning against the measure.
"The reason those groups exert a lot of clout is obviously money," Schrag said. “There’s always an assumption the positive vote will go down as you approach the election.”
Special interest groups are also hard at work in Congressional District 11, where East Bay Democrats and environmentalists are trying to rally like-minded voters in what has long been a Republican stronghold.
Freeman Ng, of Oakland, travels to Tracy once a week to register Democrats and build a voter database that will help the party canvass Mountain House, a new subdivision. He is one of about 40 East Bay residents who make the weekly trek to the Central Valley in order to influence the election and gain votes for Democratic challenger Jerry McNerney.
"No matter where you live, you're going to be affected by what Pombo does," Ng said. "He wants to increase offshore drilling ... it does affect me in Oakland."
Closer to home, candidates running for the Oakland District 2 city council seat are working to attract those who don’t normally head to the polls. Incumbent Pat Kernighan has won two elections with support from voters living in the hills, a wealthier part of the district. Challenger Aimee Allison is trying to offset Kernighan’s edge by gathering support from voters in the flatlands, a more diverse, working-class group that in recent elections turned out at just two-thirds the rate of hills voters.
"Those of us who know Oakland well know that there's a difference between living in the hills and living in the flats," Allison said at an Oct. 6 debate. "There is an urgent need to unite these two Oaklands.”
THE PATHS TO CHANGE & A BOND WITH A CHANCE
In the weeks and days leading up to the election, some groups worked tirelessly to put a dent in the state’s voter disparity.
PODER, a San Francisco-based social justice group, worked alongside the Chinese Progressive Association to both sign up eligible voters and to encourage turnout in Latino and Asian neighborhoods in the city. The association set its sights on registering 1,700 more Chinese voters by the Oct. 23 registration deadline.
“It’s time to strengthen our political power in San Francisco,” said Alex Tom, the Chinese Progressive Association campaign coordinator. “It’s about a longer-term movement among working class immigrants, low wage people of color across San Francisco.”
And, while most of the bond measures seem in jeopardy this election, Proposition 1C, a $2.9 billion package for affordable housing, is polling well and likely to pass.
That bond's apparent success could be due to its small price tag compared to the others, or it may be the way the bond has been pushed as affordable housing for seniors, Schrag said, appealing to the 62 percent of California voters that are 45 and older.
"If you said it was for poor people, I'm sure it would poll badly," he said.
Others say the low voter turnout trend may already have bottomed out.
Despite the high number of ineligible immigrant voters now, second and third generations will increasingly take part in the electoral process, San Jose State’s Gerston said.
Mark DiCamillo, director of the California-based Field Poll, said one factor in a reversal may be the increasing popularity of absentee ballots, which have attracted voters who otherwise might not have voted due to lack of time or inconvenience.
A SLEEPING GIANT AWAKES?
The fastest growing segment of California's population, Latinos, may have the most to say about how the disparity in voters plays out in the state’s future.
Already, large registration campaigns have tried to add Latino voters to the rolls throughout the state. Over the next few decades, Latinos could vote in higher numbers and close the gap between the state's population and its voter representation, political observers say.
Right now, however, Latinos make up 35 percent of the California population, but account for only about 17 percent of registered voters. While Latinos represent half the school-age population, they hold less than 10 percent of elected school board seats in the state.
"We're underrepresented at all levels of government, including school boards," said Francisco Estrada, director of public policy for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, a national advocacy organization.
In Contra Costa County, Latinos make up more than 20 percent of the population but account for only 10 percent of registered voters.
And in the West Contra Costa Unified School District, which is about 40 percent Latino, Antonio Medrano is running to be the first Latino school board member in 11 years.
Yet, the 68-year-old retired teacher from Richmond, who is running alongside seven other candidates for one of three seats, knows he can't count on Latino voters alone to elect him.
"It's a point of fact that many Latinos can't vote because they're not citizens," Medrano said.
"If there were more Latinos voting, we might be able to assure a Latino representative," added Ruben Gallegos, 44, a San Pablo parent who can't vote.
Medrano, who stands to benefit from increased Latino voter turnout, has been walking the district's neighborhoods for more than two hours every day, encouraging Latinos to vote.
"I'm still hoping we won't be the sleeping giant in this election," he said.
But he's also encouraged non-voting Latinos to get involved politically.
"We are not 'los olvidados' or 'the forgotten ones,'" Medrano said. "What I tell those people is you can be 'voceros de cambio,' or 'voices for change.’ You can tell people who do vote about issues at parks, on soccer fields, in church. You address them on the local issues. Then you can give them some faith in the system."
That's a good long-term recipe for increasing voter turnout, said Schnur of UC-Berkeley.
"Most people don't care that much about politics, but they care a lot about their friends and their neighbors and their children," Schnur said. "If you encourage more community involvement and build more community ties, you are going to see more voters."