Will ‘D’ deliver voters? Turnout is light so far, but key issues could drive bigger Election Day balloting

An illustration of a person putting a ballot in a ballot box
(Via CalMatters)

By Friday afternoon, Santa Cruz County had received only 22,000 early ballots, “less than for a usual primary,” County Clerk Tricia Webber told Lookout. With no presidential decision on the ballot, will polarizing Measure D and key county supervisor and State Assembly races drive up the numbers?

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Turnout in a June primary election is always a concern — even in a year like this with plenty of political trainspotting being played around Santa Cruz County.

While county voter turnout is a few more percentage points better than the state average, 13.7% to 11.21%, with less than 48 hours to go before balloting closes at 8 p.m. Tuesday, it still seems a bit low to the experts in the county clerk’s office who shared those numbers with Lookout.

In a bit of electoral irony, the divisive Measure D could actually bring this county together at the voting box rather than leave us feeling like all the talk and money resulted only in an election day caboose ride.

“As someone who has been involved in State Assembly races, I can tell you that they don’t drive turnout,” said former two-time Assemblymember Fred Keeley, before going on to detail how he sees the hotly contested ballot measure playing out — and bringing voters out — across the county. (We’ll circle back to those details below.)

There are 167,803 registered voters in Santa Cruz County, according to County Clerk Tricia Webber, but just shy of 22,000 vote-by-mail ballots had been received as of Friday afternoon.

“It seems less than for a usual primary,” Webber said. who’s been in the clerk’s office for 24 years, taking over for the retiring Gail Pellerin in December 2020.

During the most recent non-presidential June primary, in 2018 — highlighted by a state governors race won by Gavin Newsom — the county saw a 47% turnout.

Presidential elections historically drive up turnout considerably — as has been particularly true with the past two.

The number of registered county voters and the percentage who voted hit an all-time high in November 2020 for the Joe Biden/Donald Trump showdown — 170,514 registered voters with 146,857 voting, an 86% showing. The 2016 election that began the Trump era had held the local record previously: 132,165 of 157,204 voting, for an 84% turnout.

But other big, buzzy events also seem to get voters out. The recall election of Newsom last September drew well locally: 116,520 of 169,351 registered voters, a 68.8% turnout.

Measure D is the 30-ton railcar in the room — and one that would figure to have a similarly galvanizing effect on voters.

In the process it could help lift the important, yet more localized, races for the open county supervisor seats in Districts 3 and 4, and State Assembly seats on each side of the county (Districts 28, 29 and 30).

While state and national implications are few on this ballot, there is plenty to be chopped up at the local level.

Residents of the city of Santa Cruz, for instance, have other key decisions besides Measure D and District 3: whether to choose a districting path that includes a four-year mayor and whether to approve a sales and use tax.

“For us locally, this is a very active dynamic ballot with rather consequential outcomes,” said Keeley, one of the county’s most veteran politicos, having served eight years as a county supervisor, six years as a state Assemblymember and then returning to the local scene as county treasurer.

Keeley, who supports the “No” side on Measure D, handicaps that vote similarly to other local pundits Lookout talked to. Geography, he says, could be a strong driver in how Measure D plays out around the county. He expects District 3 (mostly Westside Santa Cruz) and District 4 (mostly Watsonville) — each with added incentive in voting for a new supervisor — to go “No” on the D vote.

Both are areas that have watched parts of a trail already being built alongside existing rail.

He sees the mid-county zone, covered by Districts 1 and 2 where many issues of rail-and-trail feasibility remain a concern, coming out big in support of the Greenway initiative.

“That makes District 5, where Roaring Camp lives, the wild card,” Keeley said. “Had that issue not come up during this campaign, I think it would be advantage Greenway. I think it’s really a jump ball — I won’t be surprised either way.”

One other reason “No” could prevail: “It’s a truism in campaigns that a ‘No’ vote is easier to get than a ‘Yes.’ If there is confusion, people will tend to do one or two things: skip that ballot measure or vote ‘No.’”

One reason “Yes” might still prevail: “They’ve been at this for a very long time. They built Greenway as a movement. They have been very careful, very thoughtful and very good at advancing their message for several years.”

Either way, count Keeley among those who believe the future of the Santa Cruz Branch Rail Line corridor won’t be magically solved by this election. Nor will the hurt feelings magically subside.

“My guess is that when this thing’s all said and done, there’s gonna be a whole bunch of hard feelings, no matter how it turns out,” he said. “There will be a need for some discussion around how to go forward as a community, what does that mean?”

What you need to know about the measures facing Santa Cruz County voters on the June 7 ballot.