A mural in Chicano Park taken on April 5, 2022, the morning of the 80th Assembly District special election. / Photo by Jesse Marx

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Last Tuesday saw the special election for Lorena Gonzalez’s former seat in the 80th Assembly District. It encompasses much of the South Bay and is home to an array of working-class communities.  

The two leading contenders in the race, both Democrats and Latinos who once served on the City Council, have cited their experience and upbringing in Barrio Logan as central to their identity and worldview. They’ve vowed to defend its interests.  

Walking the streets and parks of Barrio Logan on the morning of the election, though, I struggled to find anyone who had voted, let alone knew who the candidates were.  

Of the nearly two dozen people I interviewed, most said they didn’t have time or didn’t care. Others were tired of hearing politicians make promises and not deliver. Elected officials come and go, they said, but their lives don’t improve much.  

Fernando Mejia, a 34-year-old welder, told me that San Diego’s extreme cost of living was top of his mind these days. He is fortunate to have found work in the shipyards with good benefits but remains concerned by how many people around him jump from job to job to stay afloat.  

A campaign sign for one of the 80th Assembly District candidates greets drivers near Cesar E. Chavez Parkway and Kearney Avenue in San Diego. / Photo by Jesse Marx

Although there was a yard sign for one of the candidates within eyesight, Mejia said he was unaware of the election — and unfazed that there was still time to weigh in.  

“I don’t think it would change anything for the better,” he shrugged.  

The turnout, as of Thursday afternoon, was 16 percent. But that’s among registered voters. When the entire adult citizen population for the district is taken into account, the total showing drops to 13 percent. Low as it sounds, it is about equal to what Gonzalez received when she first won a seat in the California Assembly, thanks to another special election, almost a decade ago.  

Mejia is not an outlier, and the apathy I found in Barrio Logan is not unique to the community. The special election for the neighboring 79th Assembly District last year had a roughly 20 percent turnout among eligible voters.  

The Center for Inclusive Democracy at the University of Southern California has combined voter registration figures for citizens at the precinct level and merged it with nearby census tracts. The numbers aren’t exact but they still offer a window into where concentrations of nonvoters live.  

I took the work of the researchers one step further and analyzed the 50 census tracts on both ends of the spectrum in San Diego County. Communities with the highest estimates of nonvoters also have higher poverty rates, higher percentages of renters and higher numbers of immigrants than the regional median. They’re younger on the whole and less educated.  

Some of the census tracts with higher estimates of nonvoters are near college campuses, which isn’t surprising. At the same time, communities with more voter participation — including La Jolla, Carlsbad and Rancho Bernardo — tend to be whiter. But there are more than a few outliers. For instance, several historically Black neighborhoods in southeast San Diego have relatively high registration levels (which tracks at the national level). The same goes for portions of South Bay.  

Jose Lopez, the local director of the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, empathizes with people who distrust the political process because he used to feel the same way. Rather than lecture anyone while he’s out organizing, he tries to relate by sharing his own experience. He points to various park improvements around Chula Vista — investments in lights, trash cans and a stop sign — after his group showed up at city hall.  

“It began to slowly change because people in the community demanded it,” he said.  

Similarly, Lexxus Carter, the program director of civic engagement at Mid-City CAN, told me that people are simply overwhelmed and don’t know how to call in to a public meeting to advocate for themselves and their neighbors.  

“It’s not an excuse, but it is a reason, because people are trying to figure out how to pay rent next month,” she said.   

Instead, her organization tries to meet people where they are — by coupling voter outreach with information about food and housing assistance that already exists.  

For his part, Franco Garcia, policy director at the Environmental Health Coalition, directs the attention of nonvoters to down-ballot races and measures that could have a more immediate impact on their lives. In 2018, for instance, a rent control measure in National City failed by fewer than 200 votes.  

Voter turnout has improved in neighborhoods that disproportionately suffer from pollution and poor air quality, Garcia said, but it remains a problem that most candidates and backers of ballot measures concentrate their efforts on likely voters.  

“People like me, who vote, get all the attention. Those who don’t are ignored,” he said. “It widens the gap.”  

There are, of course, real barriers to the ballot box. People who otherwise want to vote might not speak a dominant language. They may be incarcerated. They may have difficulty getting to the polls. They may be confused by deadlines and the booklets they get in the mail.  

But many are just dissatisfied. Those who choose to sit out elections tend to lean left on healthcare but are more conservative on social issues. They’ve rationalized after years of seeing income gains go almost entirely to the top that the public sector doesn’t exist for their benefit.  

Granted, primaries and special elections have always attracted less attention. But even high-profile contests on the national level can produce astonishing stats. An estimated 80 million Americans abstained from the record-setting 2020 presidential election. The 2016 presidential election saw an increase in participation over 2012, but at nearly 56 percent of the voting-age population across the country, it was still low by international standards. (San Diego’s turnout was much higher.)  

By no means is this a new phenomenon. Researchers have been essentially warning since the 1980s that the rising rate of abstention was coinciding with a decline in union membership and ensuring middle- and upper-class representation in public affairs. The campaign messaging, in turn, gets tailored to fit those interest groups.  

By 2006, the Pew Research Center was reporting that only a third of the adult population in the United States was a “regular” voter. The remaining two-thirds were considered “intermittent” or “rare” voters, or simply unregistered. 

Contrary to stereotype, nonvoters are not always disengaged. Quite the opposite. Some are avid consumers of media and see abstaining as an act of protest.  

Peter Graves in his North Park apartment on April 11, 2022. / Photo by Jesse Marx

Peter Graves, a 39-year-old musician and audio engineer, was a reliable Democrat for years, but his faith in the “vote blue no matter who” mantra has begun to falter. He’s been in San Diego long enough to remember Donna Frye’s insurgent campaign for mayor in 2004, when thousands of ballots that would have pushed her over the edge were tossed out because voters had written her name in but hadn’t filled in the bubble. Two presidents in his lifetime have also won the popular vote but lost the White House because of the electoral college.  

The official response to the pandemic has had a souring effect as well. Graves was particularly turned off seeing people show up at school board and county meetings to scream about masks and vaccines. All the while, he had difficulty getting his unemployment benefits through the state.  

Years of emotional investment followed by disappointment left him wondering whether the differences between the two major parties are all that great. His feelings intensified when he learned recently that both Democrats and Republicans in Congress who influence U.S. military policy are invested in prominent defense contractors, potentially profiting off their oversight duties.  

Graves is now on the verge of bowing out of elections on the national level and reserving his mental space for the local candidate and ballot measure that offers something more than empty statements of values. Bringing down the cost of housing remains his top concern.  

“More than ever before, I’m thinking about not voting,” he told me.  

Others believe there are more meaningful ways to make a difference than casting a ballot every couple years and hoping they don’t get duped.  

Jordan Searls, a 31-year-old grocery store worker, told me he’s tired of rooting for the lesser of two evils, tired of picking a team for the sole purpose of damage control, tired of the sports-like spectacle of election season that’s detached from the reality on the ground, where people are literally dying on the streets. After the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, he channeled his energies into mutual aid work, gathering free food for San Diegans in need.  

As he sees it: “Those actions, politically, are more important than voting.”  

For someone like Searls, living in a democratic society means practicing what you preach. The truth is that many of the problems we face in the 21st Century — like income inequality, homelessness, climate change — require a collective response beyond the abilities of any individual accustomed to seeing themselves as a mere consumer in the marketplace. Being disconnected only feeds the status quo.  

When I mentioned this to Ramla Sahid, the executive director of the Partnership for the Advancement of New Americans, or PANA, she agreed. It’s crucial that people on the ground feel like others have their back, she said, and mutual aid can help accomplish that. Voting, in other words, should only be considered a part of the political process. In her view, it must be accompanied by mass mobilization so that ordinary people can regain a sense of agency and voice and advocate for their material interest or social values.  

“That hope can only come from being in a group,” she said. “You can’t create that by yourself in your living room.”  

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11 Comments

  1. Of course people are disenfranchised. Look at the last mayors race. You had a successful female entrepreneur who was largely independent due to her success in business and then you had Todd Gloria who has not worked in the real world a day in his life, constantly climbing the political ladder and taking photos with the terrible Gavin Newsome. Todd Gloria took tons of donation money from various business groups to fund his campaign and they now control him in office. Most people don’t pay attention to this and thought they’d rather see a gay guy with darker skin than a white woman in office. And look no further than Gonzalez who used her political office to leverage a very lucrative job with a local union. I mean these people getting elected look more like their constituents in Barrio Logan but they really are just in it to line their pockets in the end. I’ve protested in votes myself in the past. If the two party system gives you two terrible candidates, why vote for them? That signals to the parties that they are doing what the people want and that has not been the case. Big donors own the political parties and the politicians work for those donors and not for the people. Kudos to those helping others on their own.

    1. My name is Dan Smiechowski, I want to thank everyone for the opportunity to address you concerning my desire to serve the Citizens of San Diego.

      In my lifetime I have been privileged to know many of the leaders of the twentieth Century. I am a triathlete and a citizen of the World. My second country is France, and my roots are in Poland.

      I come before you today to explain why you must vote for me instead of the continuing chain of candidates that have sold their souls to the political party belief that serving America is a career choice.

      I choose to run because it is my duty and an honor to serve America. I bring the wisdom of age to a time dominated by a culture of youth searching for the truth.

      All my life, the one truth that I am sure of is that sending Americans to fight in foreign lands is morally indefensible.

      My contemporaries 30 years ago started their political careers just like my opponents in this race for City Council. They campaigned on the politics of promising to use the government to make America a better place. As they advance in their career of politics, they raise millions of dollars and lose their souls in the process to the nameless donors who own them.

      Today we are faced with another World War with the same candidates who ran for City Council 30 years ago who are now the Senators and President who are beating the drums of war to please the nameless donors who supported their career choice.

      I ask you to give peace a chance, vote for me.

      I ask every candidate here on the podium with me to take a principled stand against the war. America must stop the violence in our world by not participating in it. Making every candidate running for every elected office in America state they will no longer support sending American troops to die on foreign soil will be the start of World Peace.

      I will only promise the voters of District 2 three things:

      I will use the office of City Council to send a message from San Diego to the rest of America:

      DISTRICT 2 OPPOSES SENDING AMERICAN SOLDIERS TO DIE IN ANOTHER FOREIGN WAR

      I will propose a charter amendment to stop the sale of City owned land.

      I will advocate that all future new hires for City Government have as their pension plan Social Security

      STOP THE WAR BRING DOWN THE COST OF REAL ESTATE AND RESTORE SANITY TO SAN DIEGO GOVERNMENT PENSION PLANS

      Vote for America Vote for me Dan Smiechowski

  2. And the best thing about the 2016 presidential election is that it exposed the Democrats for being just as corrupt as the Reoublicans. People were supporting Bernie Sanders but the big Democrat donors didn’t want Bernie taxing all of the money so they forced Hillary to be the candidate and she lost to Trump. Imagine being that bad that you lose to Trump. I mean Obama had to beat two pretty good candidates in McCain and Romney. Hillary couldn’t beat Trump. Ouch.

  3. Gomez or Alvarez – two local retreads looking for a new gig to pay the bills. Been there done that. Running for office and a getting elected is a business that most people find daunting and barriers to entry are numerous.

    As for those who are disillusioned with our two party system, which many of us are, look to other countries where people stopped voting. It’s a lot harder to get something back, once you lose it.

  4. One tool in the tool shed of voter disengagement is Ranked Choice Voting (RCV), where we advance more than just two candidates to the general election so that people see themselves represented and they don’t have to hold their nose and vote for the “lesser of two evils”. RCV encourages diverse candidates to run. It discourages negative campaigning. And has proved to increase voter turnout.*

    More Choice San Diego (MCSD) has been working on RCV voting reform initiatives for several years. We didn’t make it to the ballot in 2020, but we’ve built a non-partisan coalition and I’m certain we’ll prevail this year so we can bring RCV to San Diego for mayor, city council, and other elected positions. Alaska and Maine use RCV in national elections, Utah uses it more & more municipal elections, NYC used it for their mayoral democratic primary and all municipal primary elections, and 23 states are currently considering this reform.

    *Learn all about RCV at http://www.morechoicesd.org

    1. whoops – should have said, “one tool in the toolshed *to help fix* voter disengagement is Ranked Choice Voting” 🙂

      BTW: the Top 5 RCV initiative goes in front of city council’s Rules Committee next Wednesday (4/20/2022) so on Tuesday, April 19, MCSD is holding a press conference in front of the city administration building at noon. Hey, VOSD/Jesse Marx: covering this initiative will help educate our San Diegans about an excellent solution to this problem.

  5. mr. Marx overlooks what i think is THE main reason more and more people aren’t voting: Tuesday election day.
    since the 80s – which Marx noted as the beginning of decreased voter turnout -and R. Reagan, union membership has fallen and many folks need to WORK more to make ends meet. even with “early voting” in many places, this simply leaves little time for many to exercise their voting rights.

  6. The candidates sell themselves to their donors and political parties. It’s a shell game where the most shekels win! Voters are swayed by endorsements, ironically the problem, then they complain. Voter’s respect powerful important people who masquerade like a character out of Les enfants du Paradis then they complain about the very same endorsements they support.

  7. Kate,
    Thanks for a heads up on the Top 5 RCV initiative. I strongly support ranked choice voting because it reduces the “spoiler” effect in the current system, whereby if I vote for my favorite, it might backfire by splitting votes between my top two choices. I am tired of trying to game my vote. Thanks to your comment, I have emailed my council rep and joined your mailing list.

    1. Carrie – great to have you join us in bringing RCV to San Diego! If you have time on Tuesday at noon, come down to Civic Center Plaza to show your support during the MCSD press conference. And if you have time between 2-5:00 pm (probably between 2-3:00 pm), join the Rules Committee to voice your support.

      1. Politics is like playing a game of chess in the eye of a hurricane. Perception of winning is preceding character according to voters. Look at the proof, the undeniable proof in D2 SDCC where I am a candidate. The incumbent CM was subject to recall by the voters yet is currently endorsed by a who’s who of local elected officials. A disconnect nonpareil. This is immoral. Why do the voters accept this immorality? Voters complain about scooters, ADU’s, traffic, crime, tobacco, Mary Jane, OB Pier, pickle ball, parks, senior centers, private property rights, police, arts and culture, pensions, zoning, permit fees, nonprofits, libraries and more. And then they vote against their interests. Who said a fool is born every minute? Barnum and Baily? Or just PT Barnum? Dan Smiechowski D2 SDCC candidate

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