The New Low in the Old West

"You know — after watching all those ads, I couldn’t tell who was for whom," commercial real estate executive Buzz Kirkabee told me over dinner at Xian Restaurant in Los Angeles Sunday evening June 4. Kirkabee, a resident of Los Angeles since 1945, was talking about the glut of TV spots for candidates in the California primaries two days later. His wife Maidee Smith Kirkabee, a supporter of Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, couldn’t take the media broadsides either and preferred to discuss her stands on the statewide initiatives on the ballot — positions she had reached through discussion and reading, not watching television.

Film and television actress Jeanine Jackson weighed in similarly. Earlier Sunday, Jackson had retrieved messages from her home phone and exploded: "I’m sick of [Democratic gubernatorial rivals] Steve Westly and Phil Angelides. Sick of them! I’ve been out for about two hours and they are all polluting my voicemail." She noted that the barrage of recorded political messages drained free time her server provided for her cellphone.

The legacy of disgust from Golden State voters I experienced in Southern California this weekend became apparent today: "With 90% percent of precincts reporting early Wednesday," the Associated Press reported today, "it appeared a little more than a quarter of the total number of state’s registered voters had cast ballots." Although this could change as absentee and provisional ballots were counted, "the state’s tally could easily come in at or below 34% of registered voters, making it the worst showing at the polls since workers began tracking the number in 1946."

Why? At a time when first-time voter turnout in Iraq is at 60% and the inky fingers of the newly-minted electorate warm hearts throughout the world, people in America’s largest state — one with a unique history of amending their constitution through initiative and referendum at a rate of twice-a-year — appear increasingly disinterested in voting.  

It wasn’t always this way. Three years ago, the whole world watched as Californians did the unexpected and, using a little-known portion of state law, got enough signatures to oust Democratic Gov. Gray Davis less than a year after he won his second term and replace him with first-time Republican candidate Schwarzenegger. A whopping 61% of the voters went to the polls to choose between Davis, Schwarzenegger, and more than 100 other candidates. Indeed, the famed "recall election" could well rival the celebrated race for governor in 1934 between Socialist-turned-Democrat Upton Sinclair and Republican Gov. Frank Merriam for the title of historian Greg Mitchell’s epic book: "The Campaign of the Century."

"People aren’t tired of elections," Republican political consultant David Gilliard told the Los Angeles Times recently, "They’re tired of the fact that after the election, nothing happens. . .That’s what happens when there’s not a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow."

Did the glut of commercials and recorded phone calls turn off a lot of voters. Bob Stern, president of the non-partisan Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles, thinks so. As he told the AP, "I think a lot of people considered it a very negative campaign and just didn’t want to vote. It was like voters said ‘a pocks on both your houses.’" (In the end, State Treasurer Angelides topped State Comptroller Westly by a margin of 48% to 44% and now faces Schwarzenegger).

A footnote: When voter turnout was first tracked in 1946, California operated under a unique system known as "cross-filing," in which candidates could file for nominations of both parties and, if triumphant in both the Democratic and Republican primaries, ran on both labels in the fall. In ’46, Republican Gov. Earl Warren won nomination for a second term and the Democratic nomination against then-State Attorney General Robert Kenney; Republican Sen. Willliam F. Knowland, appointed to office earlier following the death of Sen. Hiram Johnson (R.-Cal.), was nominated for a full term, and faced Democrat Will Rogers, Jr., namesake-son of the late humorist. 


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