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Enthusiasm draws voters out on election day, turnout nears 2008 levels

on November 9, 2012

More people in Alameda County registered to vote for the November 2012 election, compared to presidential election four years ago, but the number of voters who cast ballots this season will likely come in slightly lower the historic 2008 presidential election, when voter turnout in the county peaked, election officials said Thursday.

Provisional ballots are still being tallied, but Dave Macdonald, the Alameda County Registrar of Voters, said voter turnout is being updated every day as those remaining ballots are tallied. As of Friday morning, Macdonald said, “So far voter turnout is about 50 percent of registered voters, but that’s going to change every day, with each ballot we count.There are 810,836 registered voters in Alameda County—up nearly 8,000 from 2008. The latest data shows that so far, 443,033 people voted. Elections officials have until December 4 to officially count every ballot and certify the election.

“In 2008 voter turnout was about 78 percent,” Macdonald said. “This election is certainly going to be lower than that—and that’s what we’re seeing throughout the state.”

One thing stands out to Macdonald this year: Vote-by-mail ballots are soaring, and are on par with the number of people who showed up at actual polling places on November 6.

“More and more people are voting by mail every election,” Macdonald said. “Right now, about 54 percent of all voters are registered as permanent vote-by-mail voters, and for this big election, it’ll be close to 50-50 when it’s all said and done.”

Macdonald said mailing in ballots is becoming more popular because people no longer have to come up with an excuse for why they need to vote “absentee,” which previously required voters to have a reason to vote from home, such as an illness.

“It used to be a few years ago that the only way to vote absentee was to have an excuse like a doctor’s note, but now we’re seeing more people register as permanent vote-by-mail voters, mostly because it’s nice and convenient,” Macdonald said. “You can sit at home and work on your ballot—you don’t have to rush out to the polls and stand in line. ”

This year is the first year that Oakland resident Mildred Thompson, 62, registered as a permanent vote-by-mail voter, a choice she made because she travels frequently for her work, she said. She sent her vote in by mail on October 31.

“I voted at a polling place in 2008, but this year I did vote absentee; it gave me time to really study the ballot initiatives and make well-thought out choices,” said Thompson.

“I grew up in the segregated South—in an era of segregation, when I can remember having to drink out of separate water fountains and go to separate schools, so I never take voting lightly,” she continued. “Voting is an affirmation of more than just the democratic process, it shows that I really do have a voice.”

Eric McGhee, a research fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California, a nonpartisan policy research organization based in San Francisco, studies political participation and said more people cast ballots in presidential election years than during gubernatorial campaign years.

“Presidential races are much sexier, and excitement is the single biggest motivator in getting people to out there to vote,” McGhee said. This year, he said, many of the demographic groups that turned out in high numbers to vote in 2008 seemed to have turned out again. “It’s still a little early to call, but a lot of the same segments of the population, like young people, did turn out in large numbers,” he said.

In Alameda County, overall turnout has been high in recent presidential election years. In 2008, for example, more than 78 percent of registered voters actually cast their vote. But two years ago, when Governor Jerry Brown was elected and Mayor Jean Quan clinched a tight victory over Don Perata, that figure dropped to 61 percent. Six months ago, voter turnout for the June presidential primary was the lowest in recent years: 31 percent. That comes out to just 239,304 of the 752,331 people who were registered to vote in the county at that time.

“We get big turnouts in presidential election years, but not so big in others,” McGhee said, in part because California holds so many elections. “Our democracy asks voters to vote a lot more than other parts of the world, so I think, in a way, voter fatigue sets in.”

Another reason why voter turnout sank during the June election could be because the county leans heavily Democratic. The Democrats, with an incumbent president, had a much less contested primary battle than the Republicans did—a disincentive for turnout among Democrats. (There are 130,025 registered Democrats in Oakland, 13,137 Republicans, and nearly 37,000 who declined to state a party preference.) Still among county voters who did turn out at the polls this June, 151,003 cast ballots cast for Barack Obama, compared to 30,851 for Mitt Romney.

McGhee said voter registration and turnout at both the state and Bay Area levels have been slowly increasing since 1996, which he said research points shows was the lowest point of national voter participation since 1950.  This year, he said, “A lot of ballots are still being counted, so it’s a little too early to say exactly what the turnout will look like, but I’ll be surprised if we continue that trend. I’d expect it to flatten, and be the same or maybe a little lower than 2008.”

Although the Alameda County Registrar of Voters doesn’t track eligible voters in the county, the California Secretary of State does. The state reported a small jump in the number of people who are both allowed to vote and who actually registered—from 69.8 percent of the California population, to 72.6. That’s an increase to 17.2 million voters, up from 16.1 million during the November 2008 election. Those who aren’t eligible to vote include people under age 18, felons or noncitizens.

McGhee said factors including education level, age and political affiliation are important elements deciding turnout among voter groups. “If you feel like you have a stake in the election, you are more likely to vote,” he said. “People who seem to be less interested in voting are generally less engaged in the political process.”



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