Study shows Decline to State upswing as voter registration deadline looms

Voter registration form at the Elections OfficeWith the deadline to register to vote in the Feb. 5 Presidential Primary just days away, there’s been some interesting discussion stewing about the changing face of California’s electorate.

But before we get to that, a reminder that voter registration cards must be turned in or postmarked by Tuesday if you want to vote in the Feb. 5 Presidential Primary. Voter registration cards are available at the Elections Office as well as any public library, city hall, post office or DMV. Forms can also be downloaded from the Secretary of State’s Web site. The Elections Office will also be open until 8 p.m. on Tuesday at 40 Tower Road in San Mateo and 555 County Center in Redwood City to process last-minute voter registration cards.

And, don’t forget that you need to re-register to vote if you’ve changed your address, your name or your political party affiliation.

O.K. Now that that’s squared away, here’s the voter-related food for thought.

The San Francisco-based Public Policy Institute of California, which aims to inform public policy through nonpartisan, objective research, released some interesting data about California’s voters Thursday. The report, called California’s Post-Partisan Future, demonstrates that they are 1) decreasing in number, even as our voting-eligible population increases, and 2) increasingly registering as Decline to State, which means they don’t want to be affiliated with any political party at all.

According to the report, the number of adults eligible to vote in California has increased by 1.5 million since Oct. 2000 due to population growth. But the overall number of registered voters reported by the Secretary of State in Dec. 2007 was 15.5 million, compared to 15.7 million in Oct. 2000.

While that statistic alone is alarming, consider this. During the same Oct. 2000 to Dec. 2007 time frame, the report shows, the combined numbers of Democratic and Republican voters shrank from 12.6 million to 11.8 million. Meanwhile, Decline to Staters – also referred to as nonpartisans or independents – have boomed, increasing their ranks by nearly 734,000 in the last seven years. They are now close to representing 20 percent of California’s registered voters, effectively keeping neither Democrats (at 43 percent) nor Republicans (at 34 percent) from holding a majority.

That makes their vote ever more important for partisan candidates to court.

The report also found that, demographically, Decline to Staters are younger: only 30 percent of them are over the age of 54.

“California seems headed toward replacing its aging partisan electorate with a youthful independent electorate,” the report states.

Of course, we’ll take this opportunity to look at San Mateo County’s numbers, which more or less reflect what the institute is finding statewide.

San Mateo County’s Democratic Party breakdown is higher than the state’s, at 49.7 percent, but is now short of constituting a majority. While the number of registered Democrats in San Mateo County has increased in the last seven years, their proportional hold of the county’s electorate has decreased from 50.7 percent in Oct. 2000. Republican registration in San Mateo County has decreased more markedly from 27.5 percent in Oct. 2000 to now just 23.6 percent.

Meanwhile, Decline to Staters have flourished, and are now almost equivalent in number to Republicans in San Mateo County. They now represent 22.8 percent of the county’s electorate, up from 17.4 percent in Oct. 2000. There are now just 2,706 more Republican than Decline to State voters in San Mateo County.

Our age category breakdowns don’t exactly mimic the institute’s, but they’re close, and the number is even more striking: only 21.2 percent of San Mateo County’s Decline to Staters are over the age of 56.  A youthful, independent electorate indeed.

From all this hard data comes some interesting postulation about the future of California’s two-party structure. Columnist Dan Walters did some of it today in the Sacramento Bee. His colleague Daniel Weintraub did plenty more – along with Democratic Party Chairman Art Torres, former Republican Party Chairman Duf Sundheim and institute President and CEO Mark Baldassare – on KQED’s live radio program Forum this morning. (You can listen to the broadcast online using RealPlayer or download it as a podcast from KQED’s Web site.)

The report sums it up pretty nicely:

The evidence suggests that major-party voters have such significant differences in demographic profiles and voter preferences that opportunities for Democratic and Republican voters to find common ground on issues are limited. At the same time, the state appears to be headed in a nonpartisan direction, reflecting a widespread rejection of the major parties and their ideological divisions. If current registration trends continue, we expect that there will be more independents than either Republican or Democratic voters by 2025… Both the partisan divide and the growth of nonpartisanship have important consequences for the democratic process. As the party rolls shrink and Democratic and Republican voters reflect views of the opposite ends of the political spectrum, the results of party votes in state primaries will inevitably result in a polarization of the legislative branch.

It remains to be seen what role Decline to Staters will play in determining the outcome of California’s Presidential Primary, but surely it will be interesting. Keep in mind that this year they’ll only be allowed to vote the Democratic or American Independent party ballots if they so choose. (The Republican, Green, Libertarian, and Peace and Freedom parties all opted to keep Decline to Staters out of their primaries. For more detail, read our previous blog post about the ballot choice that Decline to Staters have to make.)

We’ll keep you posted. In the meantime, register to vote!

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