Where are Santa Cruz’s New Voters?

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Illustration by Owen Thomas
Illustration by Owen Thomas

The 2016 presidential election is well underway and one can hardly turn to a smartphone or computer screen without being reminded of it. Broadcast news reports in Phoenix, Salt Lake City and Boise show footage of election lines wrapping around cars and buildings, spanning blocks. One might think watching such footage would incite residents in other states to register in preparation for their own primary. But in Santa Cruz County, not so much.

Since January, there was about a 1.5 percent increase in new registrants, or about 2,000 new voters.

“We’re all sort of waiting for this surge that everyone is talking about,” said Santa Cruz County clerk Gail Pellerin.

There are 8,000 voter registration cards in the hands of political parties and petitioners, Pellerin said, carrying the potential to impact voter registration numbers in the next few weeks. That is, if people use them.

“Our [party’s] registration is only up 5 percent ahead of this primary, which isn’t a huge number,” said Deborah Luhrman, Santa Cruz County Democratic Party chair.

As of January, registration in Santa Cruz County is around 74 percent, not far from the state’s number, which is close to 73 percent. In that respect, Santa Cruz County is doing well. But with the May 23 registration deadline approaching, Santa Cruz parties are sprinting to register more voters for the June 7 primary, and perhaps reflect the “surge” in new California voters that has eluded this county.

Paul Mitchell, vice president of Political Data Inc., told Capitol Weekly that compared to 2012, registration in California this year doubled among Latinx, near-tripled for Democrats and increased 161 percent for voters aged 25-30.

The Santa Cruz Democratic Party held a door-to-door registration event in Watsonville last Saturday, focusing on Latinx people and areas with previously low turnout, Luhrman said. Local Republicans are using the door-to-door tactic as well, said Rob Bernosky, regional vice chair for central coast of the California Republican Party. They are also using social media and mailing materials to reach more people.

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Parties are seizing the opportunity to register new voters ahead of the California primary, with hopes that voter interest will continue into local and congressional elections.

“It’s not just that there are more, it’s that primaries don’t normally get big boosts in registration,” said Eric McGhee, research fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California. “The big boost you typically see is in the fall campaign.”

The last time registration grew in California leading up to a presidential primary was in 1980.

“We’ve got a potentially meaningful primary for the first time in a while, and some particularly interesting candidates this time around, more than you might expect,” McGhee said. “That’s driven a lot of people to register.”

Alongside high registration numbers in California ahead of the presidential primary, there is a 65 percent increase in voters who choose to register as no party preference or with other parties.

However, there were misunderstandings over the word “independent.” Some mistakenly registered with the American Independent Party instead of no party preference.

“That party has caused some voter confusion because [voters] check that box thinking it’s an independent state of mind, instead of probably the most conservative political party we have in California,” said Santa Cruz County clerk Gail Pellerin.

To vote for a Republican candidate in the primary, voters must be registered Republicans, while those wishing to vote for a Democratic candidate must be registered as Democrats or as no party preference.

Pellerin urges voters to use the election department’s online lookup tool to confirm personal information and party preference.

“Voters need to take some responsibility to make sure they understand how they’re registered,” she said.

The question on the minds of researchers and party officials alike is whether these new registrants are simply signing up for the November presidential election early out of excitement, or if they are part of an initial wave of what will become a flood of new voters.

Even if voter turnout in November is high, political parties remain worried about the immediate drop-off in participation that occurs in California after presidential elections. In 2014’s general election, voter turnout dropped to a historic low of 42 percent. In 2012, 31 percent of registered voters cast ballots in the primary, and new registrant turnout was 18 percent. In the 2012 general election, turnout was 72 percent.

Santa Cruz County Democratic Party Chair Deborah Luhrman praised the county elections department, saying allegations of voter suppression in other states do concern her, but she’s not worried it will happen here.

“What I’m worried about is people being lazy and sitting at home on their sofas and not thinking that their vote matters,” Luhrman said.

Visit votescount.com and click ‘Am I Registered to Vote?’ to check your voter status.

The deadline to register for California primaries is May 23.

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