The book has not yet been closed on this year’s midterm election. With two weeks yet to go before the counties submit final tabulations to Secretary of State Alex Padilla and three weeks before the statewide certification will be handed down by the Secretary’s office on December 14th, there are still too-close-to-call races for the House of Representatives and in California’s own bicameral legislature.
Among the things that can be said with certainty already though is this: Los Angeles County has set an all-time record for votes in a midterm election, and hundreds of thousands of votes remain to be counted.
Tuesday’s update from county Registrar-Recorder Dean Logan puts the count of voters tallied at 2.8 million with an estimated 261,000 still to go. That number already exceeds the 2.5 million votes totaled in Los Angeles in 1966, a high-water mark that had remained unsurpassed in the county for over 50 years until this November.
The percentage of registered voters participating in midterm elections locally has been falling dramatically for decades. There is little doubt in my mind that this trend is informed partially by broader changes in the American political landscape, and, too, by the transformation of Los Angeles from the white-dominated economic powerhouse of the postwar era, to the culturally-varied economic laggard of today.
Political engagement, at least of the variety expressed by ballot, has historically been a privilege in this country enjoyed by the few – a status quo that persists. While the cultural triumphs of Los Angeles are many – our very existence repudiates the claims of the growing white nationalist movement on the Right that diversity is a vice and a liability – it is a central failing of our city during our grand era of transition that we have not delivered a politics that responds with urgency to the primary daily struggles of millions of minority Angelenos, who consequently are overburdened making do for themselves. In general, it remains the case that electoral politics positions itself proximal to power and so floats detached over the heads of those who have none.
But that makes the achievement of Angelenos in 2018 all the more worth recognizing and celebrating. When all ballots are accounted for, Los Angeles County is likely to have recorded over 500,000 votes more than it ever has in a midterm election. Turnout is tracking for 60%, a threshold last exceeded in a non-presidential year in 1982, 36 years ago. This is a remarkable turnaround from four years ago and a major break with the overall trend toward less and less voter engagement.
The standard drop from presidential-year to midterm-year turnout also was much reduced this year. In recent cycles, we have seen decreases in turnout ranging from 23 up to a staggering 37 percentage points. Turnout this year appears to be down just 10 percentage points from 2016. This would be the closest midterm to presidential-year turnout since 1982.
In some sense, the crimes, the corruption, the prejudice, the wanton hate of President Trump are creditable here.
This election loomed uncommonly large in the collective American field of vision, producing its own microeconomy of TV shows, voter guides (including, among the thousands, our own at LA Podcast), and social media campaigns. President Barack Obama called the election the most important of his lifetime and a characteristically-waffling Trump tried and mostly failed to agree.
And really it’s no wonder. The blame for the repugnant cynicism of the 2016 election should be spread widely, but voters themselves have held forth a wandering public discussion about their own culpability. Faced with two gratuitously unpopular presidential candidates, voters failed to respond as though the stakes were dire, as though the consequences for U.S. complacency (a debt that has long been paid beyond our borders and by the disenfranchised within them) could be finally delivered back to their doors.
It would appear that lesson is bell-clear now. Certainly, we could focus on other aspects of the turnout data. 2016 was a low-turnout year for a presidential election, which could temper our enthusiasm about the diminished gap. And it still is not a given that we will crack 60% of registered voters in this midterm.
But we need only compare it to the previous cycle, in which a similarly low presidential-year turnout in 2012 portended the worst midterm performance (not just here but nationally) in decades, and spurred calls to change California’s voting system: particularly by reducing barriers to vote by mail and to register to vote.
We should regard 2018 as vindication. Modernizing and opening up democracy works, and Californians need to continue to press on in their present direction. 2018 can be an aberration, or it can be an inflection point in the inculcation of a culture of civic engagement. The stakes are high already, and they only grow from here.