A nail-biter of an election is the pièce de résistance in political reporting, a dramatic finish that can leave everyone on the edge of their seats. But 2014's close contests are also a bit of a distraction from the real news: the apparent nadir, in some California communities, of representative democracy.
Case in point: the surprise defeat of an incumbent Los Angeles assemblyman by 467 votes, a stunning upset that now has the political world focused on musings about the order of names on the ballot or alleged chicanery on the part of Republicans seeking to influence a Democrat versus Democrat contest.
The real story, though, is not how the incumbent lost ... but how few of his constituents even bothered to vote. And even then, it's part of a larger story, about how several California lawmakers -- now packing their bags for Sacramento or Washington, D.C. -- were chosen by incredibly small slices of the electorate.
The abysmal turnout of California voters in the Nov. 4 elections was widely predicted. The final numbers won't be available for a few more days, but the statewide vote appears to reflect a turnout of about 42 percent, a new record for lowest turnout in a California gubernatorial election.
But a deeper dive into the numbers finds a much lower percentage of votes -- in some cases less than half of that statewide turnout -- cast in several races for the California Legislature and the U.S. House of Representatives.
Let's go back to that Los Angeles race for the state's 39th Assembly District, where freshman incumbent Assemblyman Raul Bocanegra (D-Pacoima) conceded defeat on Monday to fellow Democrat Patty Lopez, a local activist whose campaign was well under the political universe's radar until the votes started to be tallied on Election Night.
"While the vote tally is incredibly close," said a statement from Bocanegra on Monday evening, "it is clear that my opponent will be victorious by the narrowest of margins."
Handful of Voters Decide Race
The real killer, though, was overall turnout. The final tally by Los Angeles County elections officials shows only 45,033 votes were cast in the Bocanegra versus Lopez race. That's only 22 percent of all registered voters in the San Fernando Valley district.
Even worse: Lopez will take the oath of office on Dec. 1 in Sacramento with the backing of just 22,750 voters -- that's slightly less than 5 percent of all the people who live in her Los Angeles County district (using census data compiled during the 2011 redrawing of political districts).
"I think we have to take a long, honest look at our voting process and better understand why so many people are choosing not to participate," said Kim Alexander, president of the nonpartisan California Voter Foundation.
"This is not good for the health of our civil society. It's in everybody's interest to maximize voter participation and give all the people in our state a path to make themselves heard."
A district-by-district analysis reveals a high concentration of low turnout races in and around Los Angeles. Eleven of the county's Assembly districts had races where fewer than 27 percent of the registered votes were cast on Election Day. Three races -- for the 53rd, 63rd and 64th Assembly districts -- all saw turnout around 21 percent, even lower than the Bocanegra-Lopez contest in the northern San Fernando Valley.
A few congressional races in the L.A. area fared just as badly. Only 26 percent of registered voters cast a ballot in a race won by incumbent U.S. Rep. Grace Napolitano (D-Norwalk). Her 50,353 votes represent about 8 percent of the constituents in California's 32nd Congressional District. Even fewer voters elected her colleague, U.S. Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Los Angeles), to an 11th term on Capitol Hill.
Low Turnout Up North
But lest you think the only dismal voting numbers were in L.A. legislative and congressional districts, let's move the map northward. In another Election Night shocker, veteran U.S. Rep. Jim Costa (D-Fresno) barely held onto his post representing California's 16th Congressional District. Votes cast: about 26 percent of the registered electorate.
Some will argue that the weak turnout reflects races that weren't competitive, or ones where the two candidates weren't well known. But that's not a complete explanation.
Move up to some Northern California races where the candidates were well known, and ones where the competition was fierce this election season, and again ... the data show anemic turnout. In Sacramento, a Democrat versus Democrat race for the 7th Assembly District featured two well-known members of the City Council, Kevin McCarty and Steve Cohn. Only 38 percent of voters in the district cast a ballot in the race, won by McCarty.
And in one of 2014's nastiest, and most costly, state Senate races -- pitting two incumbent assemblymen against each other in the Sacramento region -- there was yet more voter apathy. Millions of dollars in outside spending helped boost the winning campaign of Richard Pan against fellow Democrat Roger Dickinson. Turnout in the hotly contested 6th state Senate district? Forty-one percent ... pretty much the statewide average.
There's at least some hint that the voter apathy was more profound in Democratic-leaning legislative and congressional districts, which lines up with the sense that Republicans cast a disproportionately larger number of votes on Nov. 4.
"Our representative form of government depends on voter participation and engagement," said Dean Logan, registrar of voters in Los Angeles County. "The low turnout in the November election is concerning."
Logan has been leading an effort to try and figure out the secret ingredient to getting more voters to cast ballots, especially young voters. But it won't be easy. And legislative or congressional contests, so-called down-ticket races, are especially hard ones for inspiring turnout. Voters often skip these races, which is counted as an "under vote," a ballot that leaves some races blank.
That may be easier to do in 2016, when a presidential contest will no doubt draw more voters to the polls. Four years ago, 56 percent of voters in the 39th Assembly District cast a ballot, more than double the number that showed up this time as 2012's winner, Raul Bocanegra, is now 2014's loser.