Asking Marin voters why they didn't vote
- September 26, 2012
By Brad Breihaupt
Independent Journal Columnist
IN NOVEMBER 2008, better than 90 percent of Marin's registered voters turned out to vote.
Two years later, in June's primary election, local turnout plummeted to a point where half the registered voters didn't bother to show up.
The sharp contrast in turnouts caused a little democratic soul searching.
Elizabeth Bergman, a political science professor at California State University East Bay, tried to find some answers.
Working with the county elections office, she interviewed 358 Marin residents who didn't vote in June.
What she found out wasn't all that surprising.
First, the 2008 vote was a high-powered presidential election that generated a record turnout. Historically, local turnout for primaries lags far behind November's presidential elections. But June's 49 percent turnout in Marin was far lower than the 75 percent turnout in 2008 primary. It was far less than the 72 percent in 2004 or 63 percent in 2000.
Why didn't voters vote in June?
They told Bergman that voting either wasn't convenient or they just weren't interested in anything on the ballot.
Fifty-four percent said voting didn't mesh with their personal or professional schedules and 42 percent said they were "not interested" in the election.
"Voters make assessments about their time, interest and contribution to an upcoming election. Depending on how the scale tips, they will or will not cast a ballot," writes Bergman.
Voter interest can overcome inconvenience, but it clearly didn't in June, a ballot where the presidential nominees had already been picked. Local races, despite candidates raising and spending several milion dollars to win over voters, weren't stirring enough to get people to make time to fill out their ballot and mail it in, let alone drive to a polling place on Election Day to vote.
"When voters perceive elections as not interesting there is little motivation for them to overcome what scholars refer to as the 'costs' of voting," Bergman says. Those "costs" range from taking time to do homework on the candidates and issues to finding time and the means to get to the polls to vote.
Anne Layzer, head of voter education for the League of Women Voters of Marin, says people aren't paying as much attention to local races and don't vote.
"For many people, voting is like taking a test they didn't study for," she said. "They just don't feel up on things."
Layzer suggests switching Election Day to weekends in order to make voting more convenient.
She also sees a silver lining. While Marin's June turnout was 49 percent, it was a lot better than the statewide turnout of 31 percent.