Poll: Fewer Californians will vote this time around

The Sacramento BeeNovember 6, 2012 

The number of Californians who vote in today's election is expected to drop by 1 million compared with four years ago, despite a record number of registered voters in the state.

And for the first time in state history, more votes are expected to be cast by mail than at a precinct.

Those are predictions of a Field Poll released today, which says 69.9 percent of registered California voters, or nearly 12.75 million people, are likely to turn out for this year's general election, compared with 79.4 percent in the 2008 contest between Sen. John McCain and then-Sen. Barack Obama.

"I believe the potential election of the United States' first African American president, who had really captured Californians, led to a really unusual turnout," said Field Poll Director Mark DiCamillo.

"This time there is just not as much excitement. We've made history."

Dionnetrae Smith of Fresno exemplifies some of the shift. The 24-year-old said he was pumped up to vote four years ago because it was the first presidential election in which he could cast a ballot.

But this time, Smith said, he's not planning to vote because he feels like he doesn't know enough about the candidates or the issues.

"That's one thing I learned from the first one – not to just do it because I have the right, but to do it because I have a view," said Smith, who works at an after-school program and takes classes at University of Phoenix.

Figures released last week by Secretary of State Debra Bowen show that a record 18.2 million Californians are registered to vote, representing nearly 77 percent of the state's eligible residents. But the surge of new voters in the final month and a half before the Oct. 22 registration deadline was smaller this year than it was four years ago.

Nearly 200,000 people registered on deadline day this year by using the state's new online system, according to an analysis by Political Data Inc.

One of the 986,290 people who registered to vote in the final 45 days this year is California State University, Long Beach, student Amy Wilson. She is 24 and said she's never voted before.

"I think I used a lot of excuses previously – that I didn't have the time and that it got in my way as a student," Wilson said.

"But seeing how the universities are being affected and how my community is being affected, I felt it was way past due that I get involved and make a change."

Wilson said course cutbacks on her campus and at community colleges have inspired her to become more politically active. She said she is excited to vote for Obama and for Proposition 30, which would raise taxes to fund education and prevent further cuts this year at public universities.

"After being in school and seeing the budget cuts and the quality of my education – that I continue to pay more and more for – be depleted, it really started to resonate more for me," Wilson said.

DiCamillo of the Field Poll said he expects roughly half of newly registered voters to turn out, not a big enough number to sway any particular race.

"They just signed up. That's great. That's half the battle. The other half of the battle is knowing where your precinct is and showing up to vote," DiCamillo said.

Phillip Ung, an advocate with California Common Cause, a group that sponsored legislation to create an online system to register voters, said he wouldn't dismiss half the newly registered voters.

"Our experience is that when people register to vote – especially on the last day of voter registration – they do so because they intend to vote," Ung said.

The Field Poll's prediction that today's election will be the first in state history in which more votes are cast by mail than at a precinct may sound familiar. Pollsters made that prediction in the gubernatorial election two years ago, but it didn't come to pass, pointing to what DiCamillo said is one of the hardest parts of polling: Predicting turnout.

"Measuring opinions is not as difficult as measuring the shape of the turnout," he said. "It's a harder thing to talk about who is going to show up than how they are going to show up."

DiCamillo said his predictions two years ago were thrown off by the fact that 800,000 more people voted than he had expected – most of them at their precincts.

Despite the expected decrease in voters, the increase in those casting ballots by mail could slow vote counting in California's 58 counties and delay results for days in the closest races.

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