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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.
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, 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.”