Voter Turnout in California Primary Reaches Record High

The line outside the voting center at All Saints Episcopal church in Los Angeles County swelled to about 40 people on March 3, as poll workers saw an influx of afternoon voters for California’s primary. (Courthouse News Service/ Martin Macias Jr.)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) — Validating lawmakers’ decision to bump up the primary from June to March, California officials announced Friday a record-high 9.6 million people voted on Super Tuesday.

Along with the most total votes ever cast in a presidential primary, California Secretary of State Alex Padilla said 38% of the eligible voting age population cast votes – the second highest turnout for a primary in the past four decades. Padilla says California’s move to “primetime” was a box-office success.

“California’s presidential primary moved to primetime in 2020 and voters responded in record numbers,” Padilla said. “There was more meaningful campaigning in California by presidential candidates than we have seen in many years. Voting earlier in the presidential nominating process for all parties will continue to be a win for California in the years and election cycles ahead.”

In 2016, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump had clinched their parties’ nominations ahead of California’s contest and lawmakers disappointed with the state’s minimized role sprung to action.

State Democrats proposed and then-Governor Jerry Brown signed legislation moving the 2020 primary up to March 3. Supporters hoped the move would result in more campaign visits to the nation’s largest state and give voters a chance at driving the national political agenda for once.

The switch to an earlier primary along with a subsequent series of new measures encouraging absentee voting and early registration had an immediate impact, as California’s voter rolls swelled to a record 20.6 million by Super Tuesday.

County officials are allowed to send each registered voter ballots in the mail, eligible residents can register to vote when they apply for a driver’s license, there is same-day registration at all polling sites and 16- and 17-year-olds can sign up to have their registration automatically activated when they turn 18.

While more people voted in a presidential primary than ever before, statewide registered turnout (46.9%) was slightly down from the 2016 election (47.7%) and well below the record 72.6% set in 1976.

As for candidate appearances, California did get its fair share of visits: According to the Sacramento Bee, presidential candidates made a combined 458 campaign stops. In the end, Democratic voters chose Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders (36%) over former Vice President Joe Biden (28%) while Republicans favored Trump in a landslide.

Continuing a growing trend, 72% of Californians voted by mail, including 100% of voters in several small rural counties. According to Padilla’s voter statement, 13 of 15 counties that sent every registered voter a ballot in the mail and allowed them to vote at any polling center exceeded the statewide turnout. Statewide, over 75% of voters received a ballot in the mail.

Counties with registered turnout above 50% included San Francisco, Sacramento, Orange, Santa Barbara, Marin and Alameda. Other notable counties included San Diego (49%), Fresno (42%) and Riverside (43%).

Turnout was likely hindered in Los Angeles County due to its rocky transition from paper ballots to computers. The move had the clear effect of suppressing the vote as wait lines soared past 2 hours as voters using computer touch screens took four to five times longer than previous elections conducted with ink punch cards.

To remedy the Super Tuesday fiasco, Los Angeles has committed to sending every registered voter a ballot for the November election.

The official primary results were delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic and county elections officials were given 21 extra days to count votes.

Padilla, a Democrat, says he’s confident California’s move to March was a success and hopes it will continue to anchor Super Tuesday.

“Candidates didn’t just come to California and treat us like a political ATM, they actually weighed in and engaged on hot-button California issues,” Padilla said.

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