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    Why didn’t you vote, Orange County?
    • July 30, 2023

    The line of voters waiting to cast their ballots for the midterm election stretches into the lobby at the vote center in the Irvine Civic Center in Irvine on Tuesday afternoon, November 8, 2022. (Photo by Mark Rightmire, Orange County Register/SCNG)

    A confession of deep personal shame: My daughter did not vote in the 2022 election.

    She had just turned 18. Started college 400 miles away. Misplaced the mail ballot I shoved in her bag (amid threats that apparently weren’t threatening enough). Didn’t know much about the candidates. And just, you know, flaked.

    Unfortunately, my daughter was in plentiful company. Only 54.7% of Orange County’s registered voters cast their ballots in November, a precipitous plunge from the last midterm election.

    So what gives, Orange County? Why didn’t you vote?

    It’s an intriguing question, and data from the U.S. Census Bureau sheds fascinating light on it. The answers vary widely from election to election and say a lot about how folks were feeling about everything from the candidates (we didn’t much like them in 2016) to the utility of mail ballots (many fewer of us claimed “out of town” as an excuse last year, but many more have been “forgetting” to return them).

    Our passions are further captured in the O.C. Registrar of Voters’ turnout tallies.

    The matchup between Joe Biden and Donald Trump inspired an astonishing 87.3% turnout in 2020 — perhaps the only people who didn’t vote were dead — while the midterm election in 2018 found a relatively stunning 71% of folks casting ballots (a stark exception to the “midterms have anemic turnout” rule, as voters eagerly sent their huzzahs or Bronx cheers to Trump two years into his presidency).

    This begs the question: Should voting be mandatory, rather than voluntary?

    Voter turnout in OC

    2012 presidential: 67.3%

    2014 midterm: 45.0%

    2016 presidential: 80.7%

    2018 midterm: 71.0%

    2020 presidential: 87.3

    2022 midterm:  54.7%

    “What I can tell you is that whether a person will vote or not is highly correlated with years of formal education,” said Fred Smoller, associate professor of political science at Chapman University. “The higher number of years of school, the more likely a person is to vote. We also know that ‘vote by mail’ increases voter turnout.

    “The ‘go-to’ explanation for low voter turnout is that people are lazy. Instead, we need to look at how to make our political system more user-friendly. Why is it often easier to buy something on Amazon than it is to cast an informed vote?”

    Smoller has a much more charitable take than does Matthew Jarvis, chair of Cal State Fullerton’s Division of Politics, Administration & Justice.

    Excuses, excuses

    “I tend to make very little of people saying why they did something, and even less of their explanations of why they DIDN’T do something,” Jarvis said by email.

    “In general, humans are quite terrible at explaining their own behavior. Psychological defense mechanisms kick in, and people tend to give answers that absolve themselves of fault.”

    Example from the data: About 5% of people told the Census Bureau that bad weather stopped them from voting in 2022, and 7% said the same in 2020.


    It did rain in O.C. on Nov. 8, 2022, but it did not rain on Nov. 4, 2020 (sunny, with a high of 77 degrees).

    “When people were confronted with the idea that they had done something they ‘weren’t supposed to’ (voting is something we’re conditioned to believe is ‘good,’ and not voting is ‘bad’….), they gave an answer that they thought would absolve themselves,” Jarvis said. “Of course, since all our ballots are now able to be mailed in, that ‘bad weather’ excuse gets very weak … but they’re not thinking it through. A number of these folks will even come to believe these excuses.”

    Despite our enormous capacity for self-deception, though, telling patterns emerge, the experts said.

    “I found the 2016 data point on the importance of unpopular candidates intriguing!” Bernard Grofman, distinguished professor of political science and former director of the Center for the Study of Democracy at UC Irvine, said by email from Oxford.

    “Ditto for the 2020 finding that large number of voters thought that their vote wouldn’t matter (and, given the paucity of two-party competitive districts that year, they were quite right).”

    Trump effect

    Former President Donald Trump (AP Photo/John Locher, File)

    Note that in the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections, folks offering the “my vote wouldn’t matter” answer shrinks dramatically.

    “I would argue that’s a Trump effect; fewer folks thought that these elections were meaningless,” Jarvis said. “Ironically, of course, as Californians, they’re wrong in a very real sense — Trump lost California decisively in both 2016 and 2020 — and the chance that one vote would have made a difference are essentially zero.

    “However, the other part of that answer — ‘not interested’ — is real, and people were interested in those years.”

    “Too busy” is a common answer that bounces around a great deal, and not logically, Jarvis noted. It was cited often in 2020 — the thick of the pandemic — when a lot of people were decidedly not busy.

    “This answer is likely sucking up a lot of defensive answers; when people couldn’t convince themselves it was one of the other reasons, this one is very comforting,” he said.

    There was much fun to be had with the “I didn’t like the candidates” response. It hit a high when Trump faced off with Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election. They were the least popular presidential candidates since political scientists started collecting data almost a century ago, Jarvis noted.

    Even more interesting is the fact that this wasn’t widely offered as a defense in midterm year elections — perhaps because people don’t even know who the candidates are? “Plenty of data we have cements the idea that many people are not aware of much in our system besides presidents,” he said.

    Steve Rocco (File photo by Mark Avery, Orange County Register/SCNG)

    Who’s that running?

    Chapman’s Smoller offers an illustrative mea culpa here.

    Back in 2004, a mysterious character who always wore dark sunglasses, a knit cap and black clothes, ran for the Orange Unified School Board. He didn’t campaign. He didn’t show up for candidate forums. He didn’t say why people should vote for him.

    No one could even reach him — but he was identified on the ballot as a teacher and writer. Based on that virtuous description, Smoller passed over the PTA volunteer/park ranger candidate and voted for the mystery man  So did 54% of voters, and stunningly, the mystery man won.

    The gent’s name was Steve Rocco and he went on to live in O.C. political infamy.

    From the Orange Unified dais, he rambled on about dark conspiracies involving charter schools, his father’s death and “The Partnership,” a diabolical cabal (that included The Orange County Register) trying to control the United States and kill Rocco for exposing it. “We’re living in a time of secret organizations and of corruption and mostly of dictatorship,” Rocco said at his first official school board meeting. “Aiding and abetting the drug and human cargo trade is only part of the problem.”

    He refused to participate in closed sessions, have his fingerprints taken for district records, vote on many of the issues before the board, sued the district. Smoller felt so guilty over his vote that he made a short documentary — “Rocco the Vote” — about what and how it all happened.

    All that many people knew about the race was the “teacher” description on the ballot. People were woefully uninformed about local races back in 2004 — and the contraction of local news organizations since then has only made things worse. These races get precious little coverage, if any at all, Smoller noted — many of his very educated colleagues saw the “teacher” designation and voted for Rocco as well — and there’s blame for the system itself.

    Any fix?

    There are a number of reforms that might help, such as penalties for politicians who lie (George Santos, anyone?), Smoller said.

    A more rigorous official vetting of a candidate’s alleged occupation, as it appears on ballots, doesn’t seem like a terrible idea either.

    International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, Sweden

    There’s a strain of militancy in some of us that wonders if mandatory voting might spur people to take their civic duty more seriously. Casting a ballot is compulsory in 21 countries, including Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Bolivia, Brazil, Costa Rica, Greece, Luxembourg, Mexico — and Egypt, Honduras, North Korea and Singapore, according to the Central Intelligence Agency.

    Advocates of mandatory voting argue that elected governments have greater legitimacy when more people participate. Critics say it’s inconsistent with democratic freedoms and translates into more blank, invalid and ill-informed choices.

    Cleary there’s a reason most nations in the world don’t force people to vote. But my house is not a nation, and from here on, voting will be compulsory: If my daughter wants to get her tuition paid and the keys to the car and the sustenance to keep her alive, she will have to show me the “Where’s my Ballot?” notification that it has been received and counted first.

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    ​ Orange County Register