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The which of November 

If the recent gubernatorial primary proves an accurate barometer, referendum supporters might expect a storm this fall

Speculation ran amuck in the aftermath of the recent gubernatorial primary, and the buzz circled primarily left of center.

Voter turnout was low. Near subterranean. In fact, record-low tallies broke out all over the state, with San Luis Obispo County, per usual, mustering a slightly less-dismal effort. To the astonishment of some middle-of-the-road Democrats, voters chose a slightly-less-than-suave candidate to face one of the more infamous sex symbols of the 20th Century. And, on the local level, constituents sent a message to Cuesta administrators that Measure G might have passed if the school had asked for … slightly less.

With the results distilled and a pair of ambitious education-oriented propositions defeated, liberal politicos across California stood flabbergasted, wondering what went wrong. Did the issues fail to strike a chord, or did political apathy finally reach that ultimate plateau? Several local Democratic candidates diagnosed the turnout as a symptom of voter burnout after an unprecedented seven statewide elections over the past five years. The experts, rather, called it a weak ballot.

“There was no real Republican contest, and voters found some of the candidates uninspiring,� UC San Diego political scientist Gary Jacobson said. “That’s the primary reason.�

All told, 54,332 county residents went to the polls—35.5 percent of all registered voters. Even after the absentee ballots came in, the total fell more than 20,000 short of the official count following the special election last fall, according to SLO County Clerk-Recorder Julie Rodewald.

Democrat activist Debra Broner went poll watching on Election Day and discovered precincts with as few as 18 ballots in tally close to zero hour.

“That’s disgusting,� she said, commenting on the empty poll boxes.

“Casting a vote is one of the few civil rights we have left in this country,� griped Broner, who chaired the party’s efforts in two California counties before coming to San Luis Obispo several months ago. “If they take it away, will you want it then?�

Conventional wisdom dictates that low turnout harms Democratic candidates. However, Rodewald believes that it even more adversely affects ballot initiatives, which might have prompted the defeat of Propositions 81 and 82, along with County Measure G (the Cuesta College expansion) and Paso Robles’s Measure H (the Paso Robles High School renovation).

“The type of people who vote with regularity are of the ilk to vote against referendums,� Rodewald explained. “You really need to motivate people to come out in support.�

A few state initiatives of a more significant nature will grace the ballot this fall. With a grand total of $47 billion in bond measures on the line, Democrats fear that another low turnout might lay waste to their spending models for years to come. There’s only one way to find out, and party organizers hope it won’t come to that.

“Putting something of this size in front of taxpayers, you need to give them good reasons to vote for it,� said Steve Maviglio, deputy chief of staff for Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez, who organized the bond package. “I think most people realize the need for an extensive campaign.�

The richest bond request in California history would bankroll an ambitious host of public service projects, starring a sprawling plan to install a statewide high-speed rail network. Other packages include a well-received flood prevention plan and a far-less-popular affordable housing initiative, as gauged by a recent California Field Poll.

Somewhere in between the two, the education portion of the cumulative package—one of particular interest to county policymakers—comprises a $10.4 billion measure to build or refurbish schools. Though most area schools show declining or stable enrollment, County Superintendent Julian Crocker said that the local districts could use more funding for modernization of several older campuses.

Crocker explained that San Luis Obispo County voters tend not to support contested ballot initiatives, even ones that pass statewide. He estimates that a 50 percent turnout—roughly 15,000 more voters than the primary pulled—seems about the basement for gaining county support for the education bill. In accordance with recent polling trends, that estimate would place statewide turnout in the low-to-mid 40s.

The proposed bond measure would match local funding for modernization and new schools, meaning Paso Robles’s narrowly defeated $20-million request might have doubled, come November. Paso Robles Superintendent Patrick Sayne explained that the district will continue to discuss placing the funding request back on the ballot for the sixth time in eight years. The latest vote failed by just more than a single percentage point.

Clerk-recorder Rodewald reported that, as of June 12, Dalidio Ranch was the only local referendum so far on the Nov. 7 ballot for San Luis Obispo County. That plan’s survival could also hinge on a solid voter turnout, as the project already faces fervent opposition. Aug. 11 is the official filing deadline for any additional ballot items.

Local electoral contests expected to heat up this fall include the battle for the 23rd District House seat between incumbent Democrat Lois Capps and Republican challenger Victor Tognazzini, as well as the District 2 Supervisor race, pitting property-rights hawk Roger Anderson against Planning Commissioner Bruce Gibson. Both Democratic campaigns expressed concern regarding fading public interest, but expect winds to change by November.

“We’re working hard to get out the vote, and to shine the spotlight on our own election,� said Gibson campaign coordinator Mary Bettencourt. ∆

Patrick M. Klemz can be reached at pklemz@newtimesslo.com.

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