Low voter turnout to determine San Jose elections
Santa Clara County's Registrar of Voters on Nov. 8, 2022. Photo by Loan-Anh Pham.

    Last updated 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday. The next update is expected by 5 p.m. Thursday.

    A competitive San Jose mayoral race and an open seat for county sheriff failed to inspire strong turnout in last week’s election. Poor voter participation in East San Jose neighborhoods could potentially swing two key races.

    County election officials still have plenty of ballot counting to do, but Santa Clara County Registrar of Voters spokesperson Steve Goltiao estimates turnout to land somewhere from 55% to 65%, tracking close to recent midterm elections. As of Wednesday evening, with about 91% of estimated votes counted, voter turnout hovered at 53.1%.

    Countywide turnout was about 70% in the 2018 midterm election when many voters were motivated to voice their opposition to then-President Donald Trump. In 2014, when San Jose last had a competitive mayoral race, turnout was only 50%. Turnout for both midterms paled in comparison to the 2020 presidential election, when 85% of voters cast ballots, according to the county.

    Larry Gerston, professor emeritus of political science at San Jose State University, said people don’t pay as much attention to local races when there isn’t “star power” at the top of the ticket. And in California, it wasn’t just the lack of a presidential race that may have depressed turnout in this cycle.

    “We had an election for governor where everybody knew the outcome long before the election. It was so one-sided, particularly after the governor did such a phenomenal job squelching the recall,” Gerston told San José Spotlight. “It was as close to a foregone conclusion as any race could be.”

    While voting was low across Santa Clara County, early results in San Jose’s elections indicate turnout will be lower in the city’s working class and largely Latino east side than in wealthier areas.

    Voters who identify as Latino in San Jose had only returned about 22% of their ballots as of Nov. 11, when about 168,000 ballots were received from voters in the city, according to the most current data from Political Data Intelligence, a voter data and campaign software company. As of Nov. 13, the county registrar reported receiving about 262,000 ballots from San Jose voters.

    Mayra Pelagio, executive director of Latinos United for a New America, said she’s disappointed to see the low turnout numbers so far. While nonprofits and community organizations were working since the primaries to hold events and to encourage people to vote, Pelagio says the city and county need to do more to reach voters who might have high barriers to voting.

    “A lot of the time, the resources that are there are not accessible. They are confusing, they are often not in Spanish, at least for the community that are monolingual Spanish speakers,” Pelagio told San José Spotlight. “That plays a big role on how much people are willing to do research on candidates and propositions.”

    She also said more door-to-door outreach is needed to build trust with voters in different neighborhoods.

    There are a variety of factors that keep people from participating in elections in East San Jose, Pelagio and Gerston said, including the need to work multiple jobs to make ends meet.

    “Folks just don’t have time to dedicate to doing research because they are working on all these other things they have to do to bring food to the table,” Pelagio said.

    An ongoing trend

    Gerston agreed governments and schools need to do more to stress the importance of voting. But he said the lack of turnout in less affluent, less educated and immigrant communities is not a new trend—and candidates must bear most of the responsibility for boosting turnout with their bases.

    “These campaigns, especially with turnout so low, have to be hand-to-hand combat. They have to be door-to-door, they have to be repetitious, in terms of getting to those people who tend not to come out,” he said.

    He noted county Supervisor Cindy Chavez might’ve been in a better position in the San Jose mayor’s race against Councilmember Matt Mahan had her campaign motivated more Latino voters to participate.

    “Sometimes it’s not a question of who comes out to vote for you, as much as who stays home. And those who stayed home in effect became, to a sizeable degree, a de facto vote for Mahan,” Gerston said.

    Pelagio also noted that a lack of Latino participation likely played a role in District 7 Councilmember Maya Esparza appearing likely to lose her reelection bid to challenger Bien Doan, a San Jose fire captain. Pelagio said many Latino residents in the district appreciated and supported Esparza’s work as a councilmember.

    None of the race results are final yet. As of 5 p.m. on Monday, the county had counted 467,999 ballots, about 79% of the total expected countywide. Any ballot postmarked by Nov. 8 and received by Nov. 15 will be counted, officials said.

    But Goltiao, the elections office spokesperson, urged patience as election workers and volunteers continue to count ballots. While machine counting systems are efficient, workers first must manually verify signatures on ballots, sort them and flatten them by hand to prepare them for counting, Goltiao said.

    “I think people don’t realize in this day and age the physical manpower that goes on behind the scenes,” he said.

    The registrar has until Dec. 8 to certify election results.

    Contact Joseph Geha at [email protected] or @josephgeha16 on Twitter.

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