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PD Editorial: Confronting that problem of voter apathy

What if California threw an election and no one came?

The Golden State drew about as close to that scenario as ever Tuesday with a primary election that clearly was a clunker in the minds of most Californians.

By all estimates, fewer than one-third of registered voters cast ballots in the election. In fact, when the final numbers come in, it's likely the turnout will mark a new low for the state, breaking the 28.2 percent recorded in 2008. For those who recall, that was the year California moved up its presidential primary, leaving the June election without the top-of-the-ballot punch of previous primaries.

As with that year's ballot, last week's election offered few intriguing contests or state propositions — and it showed. The statewide turnout at the moment stands at a paultry 19.2 percent. Once the 1 million mail-in ballots and provisional ballots that were handed in at polling places on Tuesday are counted, that could push the turnout closer to 25 percent, which would still be a record low.

Sonoma County voters have a history of outperforming the rest of the state when it comes to casting ballots. But even here, voters didn't show much interest. Based on the ballots counted so far, Sonoma County's turnout was about 30 percent. But according to numbers filed with the Secretary of State's Office, the county has about 28,000 mail-in ballots and provisional ballots still to be counted.

When counted, those could push the county's turnout to more than 40 percent. But in the grand scheme of things, it's still nothing to brag about.

It means that each voter on Tuesday was making decisions on behalf of every three to four eligible voters in the county. Put another way, that means all the decisions for Sonoma County — home to nearly 500,000 people — were decided by a population equal to less than 60 percent of the population of Santa Rosa.

Locals rightfully would come unglued if it were suddenly announced that, by mandate, one person would make voting decisions for every five people in the county. But somehow it's acceptable if that becomes the status quo through apathy?

Sonoma County can do better. California can do better.

No, we're not ready to endorse systems like those in Australia, Brazil and Argentina where voting is obligatory. And we recognize that this election did not offer the most compelling of contests. At the same time, it needs to be understood that politics will never be more sexy or compelling as what is on cable TV or on the Internet. There's nothing particularly fascinating about a bond measure or about a CPA running for a controller position. But these contests and these decisions require our attention — and our vote, nevertheless.


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