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California Turnout Today at All-time Low, Vote By Mail at High

by Bob Morris, published

Field Poll out today says turnout in California’s first open primary today will be “the lowest ever recorded in the modern era” with just 35% of eligible voters participating. A record high 55% of votes cast will be done by mail rather than at a precinct voting booth. California allows votes to be cast by mail without restriction and the percentage doing so has grown steadily since the 1970’s. This election marks a milestone: for the first time those voting by mail will outnumber traditional voters.

While voting by mail is certainly more convenient, it also means that candidates need to get their message out earlier to appeal to these voters. Traditionally, candidates have reserved the final two weeks of a campaign for bringing out the big guns. If vote by mail continues to grow in popularity, as the current figures show, then the final fusillade against opponents may start coming earlier and campaigns will be more drawn-out. One possible drawback of vote by mail is that major revelations often come towards the end of campaigns and sometimes cause people to switch their votes. That’s simply not possible if you've already voted.

The disappointing projected low turnout is due to several factors, the Field Poll says. The Democratic and Republican presidential nominations are presumed to be locked up and Sen. Dianne Feinstein has no serious challengers. Hence, interest in the primary beyond those major races is low. Even the two propositions on the ballot, despite heavy spending, have failed to create much buzz.

According to Field, voters are overwhelmingly not confused at all by the new open primary system. This could change in the general election though, when voters are paying attention to the different-looking ballot. There will be no write-ins and only two candidates per seat.

The November general election between President Obama and Gov. Romney will be close and thus generate much storm, fury, and interest. These factors will increase turnout. Yet, a 35% projected turnout in a presidential primary in California is dismal indeed. This is a clear sign that voters want real alternatives to the two parties. Let's hope the new California open primary system will be a major step forward and will help voters to become engaged in the process again.

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