Tess Castle, drinking a mid-afternoon pint at the Wolf Creek Restaurant & Bar on a recent afternoon, admitted something she had never told anyone before: She doesn’t vote. “Shame on you. I didn’t know that,” said bartender Danea McAvoy, 51, after selling lottery tickets to tourists passing through this bucolic town of 210 residents. “Shame on you.” The reaction may seem sharp, but it’s because Castle, 28, is in a distinct minority in this picturesque county seat of tiny Alpine County. Nearly everyone in this community along the crest of the Sierra Nevada — carved through graceful, tall pine groves and mountain peaks, halfway between Lake Tahoe and Yosemite — makes their mark on election day. On June 3, in one of the least compelling gubernatorial primary elections in memory, nearly 70% of voters cast ballots, the largest turnout per capita in the state. California as a whole is on track to hit a record of a more dubious nature — 18.3% of voters cast ballots through election day on June 3. Absentee and provisional ballots are still being counted, but voting experts expect the state to end up with a turnout of 22% to 23% — far less than any in recent history — when the tally is finalized in early July.
That’s a roughly 10-point drop from the last gubernatorial primary, part of a long-term trend in California, where fewer voters are casting ballots in primary elections as more choose not to affiliate with a political party.
Paul Mitchell, vice president of Political Data, a nonpartisan firm that tracks voting patterns, said these voters tend to prefer casting ballots in November, when they think they might be able to affect the outcome.
“It’s kind of like what you see in sports where some people don’t pay attention to football until the Super Bowl rolls around,” Mitchell said.
In Alpine County — the least populous of the state’s 58 counties and fondly referred to as the California Alps — all residents vote by mail, one of only two counties to do so in the state. Alpine instituted all-mail balloting in 1989 because of its tiny yet sprawling population — fewer than 1,200 residents spread across 743 square miles — and because voters were often stymied going to the polls in November by deep drifts of snow.