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Voter turnout hits historic low

By Chris Levister

At this polling place off Medical Center Drive in San Bernardino the biggest news had nothing to do with the new "top two" voting method that some said would cause widespread confusion when it premiered on ballots across California on Tuesday. According to a Field Poll and based on early site exit polls the news of the day was: apathy and a lack of excitement.

“If I didn’t think my parents who fought for my right to vote would rise up from their graves and slap me, I would not be here,” said 68-year-old Eloise Webb of San Bernardino, with a big grin. “It’s not like we’re choosing between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney,” said Webb. “Democrats, Republicans, others, the candidates aren’t talking about the issues that matter to working people.”

“I think people are kind of turned off by the election process. They’re saturated with the negative ads and personal attacks. People are staying away,” said Jessie Sims, a retired warehouse worker.

Although the state has more than 17 million registered voters, only 6 million — 35 percent were expected to cast ballots, according to Tuesday’s Field Poll. It’s the lowest since the Field Poll started tracking presidential primaries in 1948. That's a long, loud yawn from where the excitement level was four years ago, when an emotional, high-profile Democratic battle between Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton - held on Feb. 5 in the thick of the campaign season - inspired 57 percent of the state's registered voters to cast ballots.

Analysts say the expected drop-off in voting this year is not surprising given the relative lack of political drama on Tuesday's ballot, starting at the top of the ticket. President Obama is running unopposed in this Democrat-dominated state, and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney more or less wrapped up the GOP presidential race months ago. In addition, two statewide propositions on the ballot have not prompted outrage. “Most presidential primaries have something compelling to offer voters, but this one doesn't,” said Mark DiCamillo, director of the Field Poll.

San Bernardino County Registrar of Voters Michael Scarpello agreed with the turnout projections based on low numbers of vote-by-mail returns and early voting. Scarpello and other registrars across the state say Tuesday’s election is not an indication for November when a big turnout is expected for the presidential race. Election watchers see some encouraging news on the voting front. There is a measurable increase in the number of voters casting their ballots by mail. For the first time, a majority of voters — 55 percent — did so. In 2008, it was 42 percent.

Some people predicted Tuesday would be a confusing day for some voters at the polls. It was the first statewide primary under California's new "Top-Two" system. Based on exit polls the new system posed only minor confusion. Scarpello said poll workers were well prepared to help confused voters.

Under the new system, all voters (whether they’re registered in a political party or not) saw every candidate from every party on their ballots. For example, 24 different people ran for California’s U.S. Senate seat and voters picked any one of those candidates. The top two finishers in each race will advance to the November election. The new system applies only to legislative and congressional races. The top two candidates move on to the general election, regardless of party.

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