The Week in Politics: The Upside of Low Voter Turnout, Incumbent Lawmaker Losses and More

The most important election news and political dynamics at the state and local levels.
by | August 19, 2016

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One Possible Upside of Low Voter Turnout

Most people didn't bother to vote in 2014, which means some will have more voting to do than usual this November.

Here's why: Two years ago, voter turnout across the nation was the lowest it's been since World War II. In most states that let citizens put initiatives on the ballot, the number of signatures they have to collect is based on a percentage of voter turnout in previous elections. Lower turnout therefore translates into lower signature requirements and a higher likelihood of citizen-led measures making it onto the ballot.

With almost all of the November ballots finalized, there are more than twice as many citizen initiatives this year compared to 2014.

In California, initiative supporters have to collect enough signatures to equal 8 percent of the votes cast in the previous gubernatorial election. Because of low turnout, the number of required signatures plunged by more than 27 percent since 2012, from 504,000 to 365,000.

The result is a long ballot that includes 17 questions. That's the most California has seen since 2000.

"Low turnout in 2014 was mostly a consequence of large states like California having uncompetitive elections at the top of the ballot," said Michael McDonald, a voting expert at the University of Florida. "Some medium-sized and small states had healthy, typical turnout rates. As a consequence, the ballot signature thresholds will be temporarily lower in only some states, such as California."

There are, however, other factors contributing to California's lengthy ballot. Progressives, who are currently more active in pushing ballot measures in general, prefer to have their initiatives coincide with presidential elections when the electorate should be more favorable to their cause.

Also, California changed its law in 2011 so that citizen-generated initiatives can only appear on ballots in November, not during the primaries.

All that adds up to a lot of ballot measures. Since some of them touch on contentious issues such as prescription drug prices, marijuana legalization and taxes on cigarettes and income, the amount of money raised -- and advertisements aired -- is expected to be especially large. So far, more than $200 million has already been raised.

More Incumbents Bite the Dust

Three of the less populous states held primaries this week, and legislators lost their job in each.

Perhaps the biggest upset came in Wyoming. Rosie Berger, the Republican leader in the state House, planned to run for speaker next year. Instead, she lost on Tuesday to Bo Biteman, who works in the oil and gas industry and accused Berger of being insufficiently conservative on issues ranging from gay rights to restoration of the capitol.

Two other Wyoming House Republicans were defeated.

In Sam Krone's case, it was not a big surprise. On the day of the primary, he made a court appearance regarding larceny and theft charges based on the allegation that he stole nearly $10,000 from his local bar association, where he had served as treasurer. And in February, Krone was fired from his job as a county prosecutor after sending profanity-filled text messages to a coworker. He was defeated by Scott Court, who has no political experience.

After losing to steakhouse owner Pat Sweeney, state Rep. Tom Reeder is considering a recount. Reeder lost by 13 votes. Because turnout was so low, that was actually more than the 1 percent margin that, under state law, automatically triggers a recount. So it looks like Reeder would have to pay for the recount himself. 

Two other legislative contests in Wyoming were close. Really close. One House race was decided by a single vote, a state Senate race by four votes. Those are headed for recounts.

In Alaska, a total of four incumbent legislators were defeated on Tuesday. The state's dreadful budget situation didn't help, but some were denied the support of their own parties for working with the other side.

Republican state Rep. Jim Colver is a member of the "Musk Ox Coalition," a rump group of moderates who occasionally sided with Democrats. The state GOP decided to support George Rauscher, a former member of the Sutton Community Council, over the incumbent. Rauscher won.

"Basically, the voters realized that Jim Colver was a Democrat flying under false colors," said Tuckerman Babcock, Alaska's GOP chair.

In Hawaii, the sole incumbent who lost in primaries last Saturday was Democratic state Rep. Jo Jordan, possibly the only openly gay lawmaker to vote against same-sex marriage rights. She was defeated by Cedric Gates, who had run against her two years ago as a Green Party candidate.

Republicans hope that Gates' candidacy will create an opening for their candidate, Mark Paaluhui. In general, Republicans aren't doing much this year to challenge Democratic supremacy in the Hawaii legislature. They didn't bother fielding a candidate in more than 30 districts.

But the race for mayor of Honolulu is another matter. Democratic incumbent Kirk Caldwell narrowly topped his Republican challenger, former U.S. Rep. Charles Djou, taking 43.7 percent to 42.8 percent. Caldwell and Djou will now face each other in a November runoff.

Voter ID's Last Resort 

On Monday, North Carolina GOP Gov. Pat McCrory said he would formally ask the U.S. Supreme Court for an injunction to block a recent ruling that said the state's voter ID law was passed with "discriminatory intent."

As things stand, North Carolina cannot impose a voter ID requirement in November and will also have to allow same-day registration. The court also ordered North Carolina to reinstate a week's worth of early voting days.

But the timing and the amount of hours polling places will be open is up to county boards of elections.

Dallas Woodhouse, executive director of the state GOP, drew heated criticism for emailing board members and explicitly encouraging them to help the party out by making "party line changes to early voting." They should "feel empowered to make legal changes to early voting plans that are supported by Republicans,” he wrote.

*Correction: A previous version of this incorrectly attributed Dallas Woodhouse's quote to his brother Brad. 

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