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San Diego Election Turnout Could Be Lowest In 30 Years

A 30-year low in voter turnout is expected at San Diego polling places this midterm election.
Nathan Gibbs
A 30-year low in voter turnout is expected at San Diego polling places this midterm election.

Voter turnout for Tuesday's general election in San Diego County could be the lowest in more than 30 years and herald a trend of low participation, according to a report from the National University System Institute for Policy Research.

The study found that turnout in the county should be somewhere around 34 to 38 percent of registered voters. The projection is down from the author's earlier estimate of 42 to 46 percent.

"Our earlier projection of a shift from a 'red,' Republican-dominated summer election to a 'purple,' mixed fall election has not materialized, nor have the infrequent, younger voters who skip primaries and show up for general contests," said Vince Vasquez of the NUSIPR. "While this may be good news for local GOP candidates on the ballot, a greater public dialogue is needed about the real troubling undercurrents of this phenomenon."


Since 1982, turnout in San Diego County for general elections in which a governor's race leads the ballot has ranged from 48 to 67 percent, Vasquez said.

He said a combination of demographic shifts, technological advances and electoral reforms might send the region and California as a whole into a new period of low-turnout elections.

Vasquez said fewer people are voting and that trend is expected to continue. He said even if people are determined to turn things around, it will not happen overnight.

"Once we do come to consensus as to what works, I think it is going to take real political capital to make it happen," Vasquez said. "That's the reason why we're saying we don't expect for this to trend to end except for maybe sometime by the end of the decade. Its just simply going to take more time."

While the increased use of absentee ballots has made voting easier, it hasn't increased participation, according to the report. Also, newly registered voters in California are not used to voting frequently, either because they're young or are from ethnic groups that have been marginalized in the past, Vasquez said.


He added that many new voters are declining to state their party preference, so they may not be motivated to vote for one side or another.

The report also found that, as of Saturday, nearly 300,000 of the 850,000 or so absentee ballots sent out by the county Registrar of Voters Office had been returned.

The return rate is slightly higher in areas where Rep. Scott Peters, a Democrat, is in a close reelection battle with Republican Carl DeMaio, and where the city of San Diego has a race for an open City Council seat. Those congressional and council districts overlap in many areas.

Voters 55 and older, and Republicans, have sent back their mail ballots at a rate higher than their shares of the electorate, which would favor DeMaio, Vasquez said. He added that, historically, younger voters and Democrats send their ballots back closer to Election Day, but such a trend hasn't developed this time.

According to the report, about 170,000 ballots will be cast on Tuesday, around 28 to 30 percent of the total.

The Registrar of Voters Office projected late last week a turnout of 50 to 55 percent.

Corrected: February 5, 2023 at 8:09 PM PST
Erik Anderson contributed to this story