Why do California’s early election results show such low turnout? ‘People were super unexcited’

Early election results show a low turnout among registered voters statewide and in Sacramento’s four-county region in Tuesday’s California presidential primary.

The voter turnout, so far, is nothing unexpected for a presidential primary. But the early round of results suggest California voters seemed more pumped up four years ago.

The final tally in the last California primary in March 2020 showed a much stronger turnout among registered voters as a heated presidential race led to a November face-off between Joe Biden and Donald Trump, an election that displayed a deep division among the electorate.

Even as the country appears to be headed toward a rematch between President Biden and former President Trump this November, fewer than 20% of California registered voters cast their ballots in Tuesday’s presidential primary by the final tally of the night.

But two political experts said it’s still early in the ballot-counting process.

Matt Rexroad, a Republican political consultant, said California voters weren’t as fired up this time around. He said California is a Democratic state with a governor, state Legislature and president it wants.

“People were super unexcited about the top of the ticket,” Rexroad said. “They don’t want change, they’re happy with what they got.”

Ballots cast in California

Nearly 4 million voters in California cast their ballots in Tuesday’s election, which is 18% of the 22 million registered voters in the state, according to unofficial election results from the California Secretary of State’s Office. The turnout percentage is based on the 15-day registration report, but the state offers same-day voter registration including on Election Day.

These early election results will change throughout the ballot counting canvass period as vote-by-mail ballots, provisional ballots and other ballots are tallied.

Even so, those early results are far behind the number of voters who cast their ballot in the last presidential primary election four years ago. The final tally showed nearly 9.7 million voters, or 46.9% of the 20 million registered voters at that time, cast their ballots in the March 2020 California primary.

Wesley Hussey, a political science professor at Sacramento State, said Wednesday it’s too early to have a clear understanding of the voter turnout in Tuesday’s election. A small group of voters cast their ballots in person, he said, and there are voters who wait to submit their mail-in ballots on Election Day.

“A vast majority of vote by mail,” Hussey said. “It takes a long time to tabulate the votes.”

He said counties with more ballots cast take more time to count. The voter turnout will become clearer, likely by early next week, as counties update their vote tallies after more ballots are processed, Hussey said.

The Sacramento County registrar’s office received a lot of ballots dropped off Tuesday night, said county spokeswoman Kim Nava. She said election officials are expected on Thursday to provide an estimated number of ballots that still need to be counted, and the county expects to update its election results Friday afternoon.

Sandra Patterson takes a selfie at the Robbie Waters Pocket-Greenhaven library on Tuesday to share that she voted with friends.
Sandra Patterson takes a selfie at the Robbie Waters Pocket-Greenhaven library on Tuesday to share that she voted with friends.

Rexroad said voters, including Democrats, were seeking more change in government in previous primary elections, including the June 2018 California statewide primary election, compared to this year. Over 7.1 million voters statewide, or 37.5% of 19 million registered voters, cast their ballots in the primary six years ago in a midterm.

This year, “there was not a lot of motivation” among voters in California, Rexroad said. He doesn’t expect the voter turnout in Tuesday’s presidential primary to reach above 30% when the final election results come in.

Hussey said tallying election results take longer now that more people vote by mail, and there can be significant changes in ballot measures or vote totals for candidates in a particular race. But the political science professor still anticipates a low voter turnout when the final election results are released.

“It really wasn’t a competitive presidential primary,” Hussey said. “There weren’t really any hot-button measures on the ballot.”

He said Biden is running virtually uncontested for the Democratic nomination, and Trump is on his way to secure the Republican nomination. And Hussey thinks California’s Proposition 1, which would unlock billions in bond funding for homeless housing and behavioral health treatment centers, wasn’t enough to drive a higher voter turnout.

Sacramento region voter turnout

Voter turnout in Sacramento County, so far, is behind the statewide rate. Slightly over 118,000 voters, or 13% of nearly 870,000 registered voters in the county, had cast their ballot in this primary election as of Tuesday night’s tallies. Sacramento County had more than 482,000 ballots cast, or 43.2% of over 1.1 million registered voters, in the 2020 primary election.

Rexroad said it’s important to know that ballots are still be counted in California, and the early results in each county can be reflective of how each county processes its ballots.

“Some ballots were mailed out yesterday,” Rexroad said Wednesday. “Some ballots haven’t even been processed yet.”

The early election results show a stronger voter turnout of registered voters in the three other counties in the Sacramento region.

Placer County had nearly 70,000 voters, or 24% of 281,000 registered voters, cast their ballots in Tuesday’s election. The county had over 142,000 ballots cast, or 57.5% of nearly 248,000 registered voters, in the 2020 primary election.

The voter turnout was 24% of 114,000 registered voters in Yolo County, where over 27,000 ballots were counted by Tuesday night. The county had nearly 65,000 ballots cast, or 55.2% of 117,000 registered voters, in the 2020 primary election.

The turnout was even stronger in El Dorado County, where slightly over 41,000 people, or 31% of 131,000 registered voters, cast their ballots in Tuesday’s election. The final tally in the 2020 primary election showed nearly 76,000 ballots cast, or 60.5% of nearly 125,000 registered voters, in El Dorado County.