David 'Mas' Masumoto

Lost California: Those who do not vote


I predict in the upcoming primary and the general election in November, in the midst of the craziness of this race for president and the controversial ballot propositions, many of us will be forgotten. We will be ignored because so few of us vote. We are part of the lost California.

Two major characteristics define us: political geography and ethnicity. People who live in the San Joaquin Valley simply don’t go to the polls; we do not engage in the political process. Also, when examining the voting patterns of the entire state, Latinos make up the majority of nonvoters; they, too, are politically marginalized.

First, consider the voting map of California. If you look at the last statewide election in 2014, many of the counties with the lowest turnout of eligible voters were in the San Joaquin Valley. Tulare, 24 percent; Kern, 28 percent; Merced 25 percent; Fresno, 28 percent; Kings, 29 percent. The last presidential primary election numbers were even more dismal.

To be fair, the state average for eligible voter turnout was low, with only 31 percent participating. The nationwide midterm election of 2014 was one of the lowest levels since 1942 with only 37 percent. As a rule in presidential elections, voter turnout is much higher, but in 2012, some of the lowest general-election turnout rates were in the largest states, including California, New York and Texas.

Valley residents could take comfort in knowing we were not the worst area of voter participation. In the last election in 2014, Los Angeles County, despite being home to the largest population eligible to register in the state, had one of the lowest voter turnout rates with 25 percent.

In addition, according to a recent report by the Public Policy Institute of California, Latinos, who are 36 per cent of the state’s population, only account for 18 per cent of the voters. (Disclosure: I am on the board of the PPIC.)

Whites, who make up 42 percent of the state’s population, account for 60 percent of the voters. The report summarizes that our state is divided into the haves and the have-nots: those who participate in elections versus those who are not counted.

As the PPIC study points out, the haves, who frequently vote, tend to be older, attended college and are middle class. Nonvoters are younger than age 45, are primarily renters and not homeowners, and are poor. The two segments see elections through different lenses.

For example, school-construction projects are overwhelmingly favored by nonvoters with a 73 percent approval rating. Yet only 53 percent of voters (who actually decide election results) favor such bonds. In other words, since school bonds require 55 percent to pass in California, support from voters falls just below the threshold to pass.

Ironically, those who may utilize public schools the most, a younger population with families, have the least to say in an election directly affecting their families, a twisted sense of politics in the real world.

We live in a two-tier political world. One camp has distinct opinions on the role of government, social service programs and ballot initiatives. The other remains disconnected with different views of poverty and inequality that may well be ignored by elected representatives.

My neighbors in the Valley may complain about government, but until they vote, they will not be heard. Latinos, until they vote, may remain hidden and invisible. Both groups are disenfranchised, lost and underrepresented.

I don’t know the exact reason for this lack of participation. Poverty drives many attitudes. Poor people may not see the value of voting. Their dire conditions may prevent them from taking the time to engage. Many Latinos may have a distrust in government and lack of confidence in the political process. They may feel dismissed by the process and become disinterested.

They may not see enough representatives who look like themselves or share common experiences. Unfortunately, they may be correct. Because they don’t vote, often legislation may ignore their needs. Finally, the large population of documented and undocumented are noncitizens and until they pass citizenship tests, millions are prevented from participating in elections to determine who may represent their interests.

The poorest regions of the state have the least amount of political impact. The regions that need the most help often are depreciated and neglected. Fundamental problems of lower education levels, declining job opportunities and economic divide festers as the gap between the haves and the have-nots continues to grow.

I live in the lost California along with Latino neighbors. Our political geography defines our future as bleak and devalued.

I sometimes fear that a cynicism has been planted and raises the question: Do we want to be found? Are we a sleeping giant who will awaken in the future? Or do some want us to remain asleep, as the haves continue the status quo with political rule over the have-nots?

David Mas Masumoto is an organic farmer near Fresno and award-winning author of books, including “Epitaph for a Peach.”