The most recent data from the Registrar of Voters Office indicates 224,025 votes were cast in last week’s June primary election, representing 29.78 percent of the registered voters in Alameda County, the lowest in years. “Turnout was very low, no question about it,” said Registrar of Voters Dave Macdonald. “That’s throughout California, not just Alameda County.”
According to Macdonald and League of Women Voters of Oakland President Katherine Gavzy, the June primary election historically has lower voter participation than the general election in November. This year people already know who the Democratic and Republican presidential candidates will be, and there were no measures on the ballot that generated significant public attention. It is also possible that redistricting throughout the county may have confused some people about their polling locations, Gavzy said.
The gradual increase in the number of vote-by-mail ballots received in the Registrar of Voters office over the past four years indicates there may be another factor contributing to the decline in voter turnout at the polls—people voting early by mail. However, while the number of votes cast using vote-by-mail ballots has increased, according to Macdonald, some poll workers said that often those ballots are dropped off at the physical polling locations.
“What I found when I was working at the polls, that people have told us, is that even though it’s easier to vote by mail, people like the feeling of going to the polling place and seeing the American flag, seeing their neighbors,” Gavzy said. “The act of voting itself is very patriotic and a lot of people feel good about doing it at the polling place.”
Records show there are 752,331 registered voters in Alameda County. The Registrar of Voters is required by law to provide one polling place for every 1,000 people. The average number of people per polling place on Tuesday was 85 for the 785 locations countywide.
Participation in spring primaries has been erratic over the past decade. In 2002, voter participation was 34.53 percent, in 2008 it was down to 29.94 percent, and in 2010 it was at 35.50 percent.
The Rockridge Branch Library has been a polling location for 17 years. On Tuesday, this was one of the most frequented polling locations in terms of voter turnout, said senior library assistant and poll inspector Alan Howe, who has been assigned to this location for the last four years. His role as an inspector is to ensure voting guidelines are followed and to coordinate the election staff.
“This precinct is pretty active,” Howe said. “I was a little surprised at the numbers we had. They were higher than I might have expected.” There were over 100 people voting at the library and about the same number of people dropping off vote-by-mail ballots, Howe said. He said he uses a vote-by-mail ballot himself because he is unable to go to his designated polling place on Election Day.
Poll worker and inspector Dennis White has worked at the St. John’s Episcopal Church polling location in Oakland since the Bush v. Gore election in 2000. He is responsible for setting up the polling station the night before Election Day. He also ensures the election results are returned in a safe and secure manner to the Alameda County Registrar of Voters office. This precinct generally has the highest percentage of voters who turn out in Alameda County, White said.
The number of people who voted at St. John’s Episcopal Church last Tuesday was slightly higher than the projected average. “We had 91 people walk in and cast ballots and about 150 returned vote-by-mail [ballots],” White said.
White agreed that there has been a steady increase in the number of people who are voting via vote-by-mail ballots. Some of the reasons voters have given for bringing the ballots in to the polling center are not wanting to stand in line at the post office for stamps and the convenience of being able to return the vote-by-mail ballot at any polling place in Alameda county, White said.
While the use of vote-by-mail ballots has increased, however, overall voter participation in spring primaries has declined since 2004. But during the general election in November, voter participation may potentially climb as high as 85 percent, Macdonald said. “Whether it’s a presidential election or not, people should remember there are always a lot of very important contests and ballot measures that may have a direct affect on people’s lives,” Macdonald said.
“If you’re a citizen of this country, people have fought and died for our right to vote,” Macdonald continued. “The least we can do is exercise that right when it’s time to vote.”