Will Californians Turn Out To Vote In 'The Most Important Election Of Your Life'?

The Hollywood Sunset Free Clinic was festooned in balloons on an election day in 2017 (David McNew/Getty Images)

The pundits are clear: 2018 is "the most important election of your life".

Of course, we hear a variation on that line every couple years.

Nationwide, observers are watching results for a litmus test on President Trump. And California has several hotly contested congressional seats expected to play a role in whether Republicans hold power in the House of Representatives.

Beyond the national outlook, there are important decisions to be made close to home. This vote will elect the first new governor of California in over a decade, and decide several blockbuster ballot propositions. What happens on election night will have a huge impact across the state.

That doesn't mean that people will turn out to vote in big numbers, as we've learned in recent years. And as we wait for the results to roll in, here are some things to keep in mind as you hear pundits start talking about turnout:

HOW VOTER TURNOUT WORKS (AKA: WHY YOU SHOULDN'T TRUST ELECTION NIGHT FIGURES)

Voter turnout is surprisingly complicated.

The numbers you'll hear over the next few weeks show the turnout of registered voters. So if turnout is 50 percent in L.A. County, that means half of voters on the rolls actually cast a ballot.

But be wary of turnout figures you hear on election night. That's because those will climb as more votes are counted, and not all votes are counted on election night. Why? Well, a couple of reasons. Provisional ballots — that's what you fill out when you believe you're eligible to vote but poll workers don't find your name on the roll — require extra scrutiny. Vote by mail ballots have to the postmarked by Nov. 6 but they can arrive as late as Friday and still be counted.

Not to mention, counting takes time. When you hear somone has won Tuesday night, that "winner" is typically based on projections of the remaining vote. So, basically, when it's determined one person is so far ahead the other candidate can't make up the ground with the uncounted voted. Of course, night-of forecasts sometimes jump the gun [See Bush v. Gore].

That said, we're accustomed to knowing who won pretty much immediately. In actuality, election officials have 31 days to tally up every vote and report the results to California's Secretary of State.

That means in especially tight races, someone who voted by mail in early October may not find out if their candidate won until early December — two months after voting.

ARE THERE OTHER WAYS OF THINKING ABOUT TURNOUT?

Yes. The truth is "turnout" only captures a slice of eligible voters. Here's a diagram I sketched of how it all works:

When we talk about voter turnout, we leave out eligible voters who aren't registered. If you factor in those folks, turnout looks even lower.

How much lower? Well in 2014, the last time we had a midterm primary election, 42.2 percent of registered voters in California turned out. But when you factor in the millions of Californians who are eligible to register but haven't, you learn that only 30.9 percent of eligible voters in California turned out.

Ouch.

And of course tens of millions of people in America can't vote, because they're not eligible. That might be because they're not 18. It could be because they're incarcerated in state or federal prison. And it might be because they aren't an American citizen.

While those groups of people can't cast a ballot, non-citizens, the incarcerated and children obviously have an interest in who wins elections, and are still constituents of the politicians who represent the areas they live in.

WHAT HAS VOTER TURNOUT LOOKED LIKE IN L.A. AND SOCAL IN SIMILAR ELECTIONS?

Not great. Over the last seven midterm elections, California has gone from a high of 60.5 percent in 1994 to just 42.2 percent in 2014.

And it gets worse closer to home. L.A. County, home to more than a quarter of the state's population, posted the worst turnout of any county in decades of midterms in 2014, with just 31 percent turnout.

Other Southern California counties weren't much better. San Bernardino posted turnout of 34.4 percent last time around, and Riverside ended up with 40.1 percent.

The situation was slightly better in Orange County, with 45 percent turnout, and Ventura, with 47.1 percent.

That said, Orange County voters turned out in big numbers for the June 5 primary — which are typically even lower turnout elections than midterms. Turnout this year in OC was the highest it's been in three decades, with just shy of 43% of the county's 1.5 million registered voters casting a ballot. Orange County is a battleground this year, hosting several high-profile Congressional races that could decide the balance of power in the House.

And so far, early voting is higher than usual with long lines at L.A. County's early voting sites. We asked Los Angeles County Registrar Dean Logan what he thought of the the waits and he told us:

But in general, voters in SoCal don't show up to the polls the way our neighbors to the north do. The conventional wisdom says that's a main reason why candidates from NorCal dominate statewide races.

There are demographic disparities in who votes that shape our elections. Groups including young voters and Latino and Asian-American voters, turn out to the polls at lower rates, said Mindy Romero of USC's California Civic Engagement Project. And those groups make up a big slice of Southern Californians.

"You end up having an electorate that is whiter, older, wealthier and more educated than the rest of the population," Romero told LAist. "That's really bad for everyone." Non-voters as a group have different policy preferences, Romero said, ones that aren't translated into votes at the ballot box.

WHAT EXPERTS THINK TURNOUT WILL LOOK THIS TIME

We won't know for sure until the results are reported by each of the state's 58 counties to the California Secretary of State. Remember, they have 31 days to do that.

But if political watchers had to guess?

It could depend what Congressional District you live in, said Paul Mitchell who tracks elections with Political Data Inc.

"I think what we're going to end up seeing is two Californias. You're going to have the California of the competitive Congressional Districts where, you know, there's parts of Orange County where it seems like there's a CNN truck on every street corner," Mitchell said.

Those elections are drawing international attention and will have national implications. Areas with competitive house races — among them much of Orange County and L.A. County's 25th District — could see 70 percent voter turnout. In other parts of the state, Mitchell predicted turnout could dip as low as 40 percent. Overall, he expects turnout to improve on a weak showing in 2014.

USC's Romero agreed. "I think it will be a good year for turnout," she said. But she added that people can be invested in an election's outcome without actually voting.

"Actually getting out to the polls or casting that vote by mail ballot is another story. And people need to be mobilized."

WHAT'S THE TREND WHERE I LIVE?

Glad you asked. We charted voter turnout over the last seven midterm primary general elections, for every one of California's 58 counties. Don't forget to check back after the election to see what happens this year.

Does your county turn out to vote in midterms?

Data via California Secretary of State for previous midterm general elections (1990, 1994, 1998, 2002, 2006, 2010, 2014); number of registered voters is for 2014 midterm


Get ready for the Nov. 6 election. Here at LAist, we want to make sure Angelenos have all the information they need to cast their votes. To get prepped on deadlines, candidates and ballot measures, check out our Voter Game Plan. And if you liked this election guide, consider supporting us! You can donate here.