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S. E. Williams |

Those in Riverside and San Bernardino Counties who advocated for change in key positions related to policing and criminal justice will have to wait another cycle as those who voted in Tuesday’s primary elected  to remain with the status quo. 

The majority of voters who cast ballots in two key races each, in both Riverside and San Bernardino Counties–for County Sheriff and District Attorney–in all four cases, voted for the incumbents.

In Riverside County, District Attorney Mike Hestrin and Sheriff Chad Bianco will retain their positions. The same holds true in San Bernardino County for District Attorney Jason Anders and Sheriff Shannon Dicus. 

Top: Sheriff Shannon Dicus, Sheriff Chad Bianco; Bottom: District Attorney Mike Hestrin, and District Attorney Jason Anders

The difference between state and local primaries 

At the state level, the top two candidates in each race regardless of how many votes they accrue in the primary have an opportunity to regroup and face-off in November’s General Election (with the exception of the State Superintendent of Public Instruction). However, it is different when it comes to county- and city-wide elections. Locally, if a candidate secures 51% or more of the votes cast during the primary, he or she is declared the winner and there is no opportunity for a second place competitor to challenge him or her in the November election.

For example, in the race for California Secretary of State, incumbent Democrat Shirley Weber garnered 58.8% of the vote by Wednesday morning while her closest challenger, Republican Rob Bernosky, who earned 19.5% of the votes, will have an opportunity to challenge Weber in November. Meanwhile, using the Riverside District Attorney’s race as another example, incumbent Republican District Attorney Mike Hestrin secured only 53.2% of the vote (compared to Weber’s 58.8%) and his closest opponent, Democrat Laura Gressley, received 23.57% of the vote (compared to Bernosky’s 19.5%) in the race for Secretary of State. Gressley however, will not have an opportunity to challenge Hestrin in November because the county operates by a different set of electoral rules. 

This bifurcated way of selecting winners in primary elections in the state is the result of California’s somewhat complicated election laws. Where there is one set of rules at the state level for partisan candidates, there is a different set of election guidelines for counties and cities whose candidates are required to run as non partisans regardless of true party affiliation. In this case, Section 8140 of the California Election Code states, “Any candidate for a nonpartisan office who, at a primary election, receives votes on a majority of all the ballots cast for candidates for that office shall be elected to that office.” 

Voter Turnout Abysmal 

Red flag projections of lower voter turnout in the California primary were widely reported by national and other media days before the election. This certainly proved true on Tuesday. Although some political observers speculate the impact low voter turnout has on the elections can tend to favor incumbents, such analysis can be viewed as inconclusive. 

Regardless of the impact of low turnout, the office of the Secretary of State’s (SOS), statewide turnout database revealed June 7 voter turnout  statewide stood at an abysmal 16.0%. This showing was far less than half the voter turnout rate in the 2018 midterm primary that was considered low at 37.54%. Looking back eight election cycles to 2006, this year’s turnout was even worse than the worst from that period when in June 2014 the low water mark for turnout rate was 25.17%.

Locally, Tuesday’s turnout results were even worse than the state’s. By Wednesday morning, Riverside County’s turnout rate was only 14% and San Bernardino County stood at a shocking 10%.

Red flag projections  of lower voter turnout in the California primary were widely reported before the primary. This was confirmed Wednesday June 8 when the Secretary of State’s statewide turnout database revealed June 7 voter turnout stood at an abysmal 16.0%. Source: sos.ca.gov)

Did the past become prologue 

Some experts based predictions of low voter turnout on results from the November 2020 election where voter registration rates of Blacks, Latinos and Asians in the state were between 11 to 20 percentage points lower than their white counterparts and the same held true that year for voters between the ages of 18 and 24-years of age when compared to the population overall.

There are a number of reasons that may have resulted in such low-voter turnout on Wednesday including disappointment with the pace of change; apathy by minorities and others who have grown disillusioned with promises unfulfilled including the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, and other social justice initiatives that continue to fail at the federal level; a sense of political despair following the devastating impact of COVID-19 on minority communities; the deadly violence perpetrated against Blacks (hate crimes) and children in recent weeks as deaths by guns continue to climb in deliberate massacres that go unabate while gun reform languishes; rising gas and housing prices and the growing number of unhoused people on the streets of our cities;  and/or the fact that Governor Newsom just beat back a recall challenge and many may have believed with his position secured, there was not need to vote. 

Voter turnout and the potential  impact of local newsrooms

A growing body of research has found that government is worse off when local news suffers. In fact, inadequate local news has been linked to increased corruption and less competitive elections, failures in fiduciary accountability and such party-line separation that party loyalty can take precedence over delivering for constituents.  

Local newsrooms are viewed as sources many in local communities trust to educate voters on election issues and introduce them to candidates and their platforms. But for many community news outlets the challenge is daunting as media outlets around the state were severely impacted by COVID-19. During the peak of the crisis as readers looked to these newsrooms as sources they depended on to break through the noise of disinformation and deliver the truth about the virus’ impact on communities, the complex and changing nature of it symptoms and the quality and safety of vaccines for example, newsroom teams were beng reduced due to severe drops in ad revenue while at the same time working to restructure their business models while still producing the news. Pew Research emphasized however, that the perception of many consumers was that their local newsrooms were managing just fine. Yet, many local news outlets were struggling even before the onset of the pandemic. 

(source: pewresearch.org)

In 2019, Bloomberg reported on an analysis of 11 California newspapers that showed when cities have fewer reporters, political competition and voter turnout suffers. This was determined using a dataset that consisted of the 11 newspapers, 46 municipalities, and 246 mayoral elections over two decades while controlling for factors like demographics, off year elections, etc.

Voter misunderstanding 

There is also a misunderstanding on the part of many voters that they don’t need to vote in primary elections because they will have another chance to weigh-in on key races and/or issues in the General Election in November. Although this is true in statewide elections and when no candidate attains 51% of the vote in local elections–far too often–as this year in at least four critical races–Sheriffs and District Attorneys for both Riverside and San Bernardino Counties, the races ended when the polls closed Tuesday. Although votes are still being counted, all four incumbents will remain in place. 

A way forward

In February 2021 AB759 was introduced in the State Assembly. The legislation would have put county sheriffs and district attorneys on the same track as presidential elections beginning in 2028. An option for implementation would have required sheriffs and district attorneys elected in 2022 to serve an additional two years to prepare for implementation of the new track beginning in 2028.   

The goal of the legislation as defined by Assemblyman Kevin McCarthy, who introduced the bill, was to increase political participation in countywide elections that have the most impact on residents’ daily lives.  “This bill is not an attempt to attack the system — it will ensure that the greatest number of voters weigh in on these positions, which is good for representative democracy,” he declared at the time

The legislation however, was staunchly opposed by law enforcement including Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva and Riverside County Sheriff Chad Bianco as well as Riverside County DA Mike Hestrin and San Bernardino County DA Mike Anderson. The consensus was that it was an unnecessary break with established election schedules and could cause unnecessary upheaval in the criminal justice system.

A review by the IE Voice and Black Voice News of the webpage that tracks a bill’s progress through the legislature showed AB759 was moving along at a fair clip in both the Assembly and the Senate until it appeared to be abruptly ordered to the inactive file at the request of co-author, Senator John Newman (D-29).

S.E. Williams

Stephanie Williams is executive editor of the IE Voice and Black Voice News. A longtime champion for civil rights and social justice in all its forms, she is also an advocate for government transparency and committed to ferreting out and exposing government corruption. Over the years Stephanie has reported for other publications in the inland region and Los Angeles and received awards from the California News Publishers Association for her investigative reporting and Ethnic Media Services for her weekly column, Keeping it Real. She also served as a Health Journalism Fellow with the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism. Contact Stephanie with tips, comments. or concerns at myopinion@ievoice.com.