At a recent meeting, Kim Cranston of Los Altos Forward shared some numbers from the recent election. Per his research, 82.9 percent of registered voters in Los Altos participated in the election, a higher percentage than in Mountain View, Campbell, Sunnyvale or San Mateo. (Direct comparisons were only possible in cities where there were city-specific measures on the ballot.) Fantastic!
Per Cranston’s research, Los Altos has a track record of high voter participation. In the November 2016 election, the town hit 90 percent participation, and in the previous midterm election in 2014 managed 64.5 percent, outranking its neighboring communities’ participation rates in both years.
Intrigued, I wondered how our performance stood up against the national average. Vox.com as of late November showed national participation at 49.3 percent, the highest rate of participation in a mid-term election since 1914. The nation does better in a presidential year: In 2016, 60.1 percent of eligible U.S. voters made it to the polls. Los Altos is looking really good.
But California is practically an entity unto itself. How do we compare statewide? On the CA.gov website, I found that in the recent election the state performed well above the national average at 64.5 percent participation, and had hit 75.27 percent in 2016. Still looking good.
Then on the same CA.gov website, I found an interactive map (vote.sos.ca.gov/returns/maps/voter-turnout) illustrating by county exactly how the state’s 64.5 percent average was distributed. Los Altos definitely improved the Santa Clara County average (70.6 percent), but would barely have moved the needle in Marin (82.3 percent).
According to the map, the high-participation counties tend to be clustered along the Coast Range and in the foothills and crests of the Sierra, while in the lowland valleys participation drops almost in proportion to the width of the valley, all the way down to laggard Imperial County on the far southeastern border, the only county with less than 50 percent participation (48.6 percent).
Other differences between Marin and Imperial counties besides elevation:
Marin County had the lowest unemployment rate in the U.S. per the 2010 census, while Imperial County in 2016 had the highest (23.6 percent). In Marin County, 61 percent of the population is registered to vote; only 35.4 percent of Imperial County’s population is registered to vote.
So, you are thinking, what’s new? High income, high employment rates and high percentages of property ownership are associated with higher engagement with government.
Some of my acquaintances would say, “That’s what the Founding Fathers expected. States were left to decide the qualifications for voting, and mostly they decided that only property owners would be able to vote, so that the voters would have a real stake in legislation and regulation. Why should we encourage people who don’t care much about the issues to vote?”
That attitude has it backward. First, people need to care about the issues; then the voting will happen. I’m sure part of the reason for Los Altos’ good turnout was the high level of interest in Measure C, in some ways a referendum on representative rather than plebiscite government. Representative government won this round, but that doesn’t mean we can sit back, relax and let our elected officials work in a vacuum. Just think how “vibrant” our town would be if the 82 percent of the adult population that voted continued our engagement with local government!