A Look Back — And Ahead to the May 19 Election
The conventional wisdom on special elections held in odd-numbered years is that turnout will be lower and comprised mainly of high propensity voters who tend to be older, white and monied.
“A special election is a wild card because voter turnout could be significantly lower and oriented toward older and more conservative voters,” Mark Baldassare, Public Policy Instute of California’s president and pollster tells California’s Capitol.
“Then again, the conventional thinking before the two other special elections this decade — in 2003 and 2005 — proved to be wrong as both elections had sizable turnouts.”
The October 2003 special election gave Arnold Schwarzenegger the governorship and sent Gray Davis into the private sector. The November 2005 special election was a referendum on the GOP governor’s attempts to “reform” Capitol politics.
In October 2003, 9.4 million Californians went to the polls. Almost 5 million voted to recall Gray Davis and 4.2 million of them voted to replace him with Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Alameda County, with the highest percentage of Democratic registration in the state, saw 63 percent of its registered voters cast ballots either in person or by absentee. Neighboring Contra Costa was even higher, 72 percent. In Los Angeles, 2.2 million of its nearly 4 million registered voters cast ballots.
Overall, more than 61 percent of California’s more than 15.4 million registered voters cast ballots.
For purposes of comparison, 13.7 million of California’s 17.3 million registered voters cast ballots in November’s presidential election, an amazing 80 percent turnout. Of course, turnout is always higher in presidential elections and it was held at a time when people expect there to be an election — November of an even-numbered year.
In 2003, the excitement over a recall of a sitting governor and the buzz of potentially replacing him with an action hero grabbed the attention of voters of all stripes, driving up participation.
In 2005, labor unions and their allies spent lavishly to lambaste a series of what Schwarzenegger called “reform” measures – Propositions 74, 75, 76 and 77 – and ended up besting the governor who they accused of trying to orchestrate a “power grab.”
This time, 8 million of the state’s 15.9 million voters cast ballots, about 50 percent. The governor’s propositions lost, respectively, by 55 percent, 53.5 percent, 62.4 percent and 60 percent.
The ballot being long may have increased the number of “no” votes, a phenomenon that has been studied and is referred to by some as “ballot fatigue.”
November 2005 also featured an expensive and confusing duel between two rival measures relating to pharmaceutical drug pricing.
But certainly a key to the unions’ victory was a big cash commitment that helped them energize their supporters.
Turnout was higher in Democrat-rich urban counties. In Alameda, 54 percent of eligible voters cast ballots. In Contra Costa, 57 percent. Compare that to 44 percent for Orange and Riverside whose GOP voters and conservative Democrats would have been more likely to support the governor.
So in 2005 more of the older, more monied, whiter voters stayed home.
The spending commitment by the unions in that special election illustrates another point by Baldassare about the upcoming May 19 election:
“A lot will depend on the extent to which there are resources committed to a ‘yes’ and a ‘no’ campaign for the budget-related measures.”
Conventional wisdom may also be altered by some of the not-so-traditional political partnerships in the Capitol.
“You’re seeing shifting alliances. Caution should be exercised in generalizing from prior behavior because those were the old rules,” says Barbara O’ Connor, director of the Institute for the Study of Politics and Media at California State University Sacramento.
It will be likely that the coalition backing the May 19 propositions strongly resembles the one organized around last November’s successful Proposition 11, which takes the process of drawing legislative district lines from the hands of lawmakers.
Proposition 11’s backers included the AARP, the League of Women Voters of California, the California Chamber of Commerce, California Common Cause, NAACP California State Conference, ACLU of Southern California, Bay Area Council, League of California Cities, California Conference of Carpenters, California Democratic Council, California Police Chiefs Association and California Small Business Association.
A visit to the website of the supporters of Propositions 1 A through 1 F on the May ballot starts with this statement: “We are taxpayers, educators, business, labor, seniors, public safety and many more who want to see the system changed for good.”
The campaign’s “team” already includes some Proposition 11 players: California Business Roundtable and the California Chamber of Commerce. Also listed are the California State Sheriffs’ Association and the Small Business Action Committee.
And buttressing O’Connor’s point about shifting alliances it is not a common occurrence when the Howard Jarvis Taxpayer Association joins with Health Access as plaintiffs in a lawsuit.
The two divergent groups are suing over what they claim is the freighted language of the ballot label and title and summary of Proposition1 A which enlarges the state’s existing reserve fund and requires money to be deposited in it during good fiscal years for use in bad.
Words in the official description of the measure on the ballot like “overspending,” “rainy-day fund” and “reform” are not impartial and designed to push voters into voting “yes,” the lawsuit claims.
Normally, a ballot measure’s title and summary is written by the Attorney General but, supposedly because of the short amount of time until the election, the Legislature wrote the ballot summaries for the May measures.
What’s still unclear is whether potential voters will consider this special election déjà vu all over again and exercise somne skepticism as a result.
In 2004, Schwarzenegger backed two measures, Propositions 57 and 58, which, he said, in a 30-second commercial with then Controller Steve Westly, would solve, once-and-for-all, the state’s budget woes.
Proposition 57 authorized California to increase its long-term debt by $15 billion to partly erase a previous $32 billion shortfall. Proposition 58 created a second “rainy day” fund for the state. An existing one was established under Gov. George Deukmejian.
The $15 billion in bonds have been sold to cope with the budget shortfalls that occurred after the passage of the two measures, culminating in the $42 billion gap between spending and revenues lawmakers and the governor recently closed, in part by increasing taxes – temporarily – by $12.2 billion.
In the 2004 commercial Schwarzenegger says:
“Our state has been running huge deficits that have been papered over by borrowing without voter approval.
“I am committed to putting our financial house in order. And I need your help. After all, it is your money.
“On the March ballot, Proposition 57 will refinance past deficit borrowing at low interest rates. And Prop. 58 tears up the credit card for good. It requires a balanced budget every year without borrowing so we never get in this mess again.”
The Chamber of Commerce, a fellow supporter of the budget “solutions” of 2004, echoes the governor’s 2004 claims on its website:
“Passed together, Propositions 57 and 58 — the Governor’s California Recovery Plan — will prevent another budget deficit disaster and ensure the state enacts balanced budgets in the future. This plan is essential to bringing California out of the fiscal mess Governor Schwarzenegger has inherited and is strongly supported by the California Chamber of Commerce.
“Proposition 57 is a one-time $15 billion Economic Recovery Bond to refinance the budget deficits inherited by the Governor due to past mismanagement of the state’s finances.
“Proposition 58 requires California politicians to balance the budget every year and prohibits bond financing of future deficits. It also creates a “rainy day savings account” to be used to pay off bonds early and help the state through future economic downturns.”
Both measures passed by wide margins.
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