Voter turnout fell by 10 points in Santa Cruz County — and more in surrounding counties

Santa Cruz County's turnout in the 2022 midterm election varied by region
Santa Cruz County’s turnout in the 2022 midterm election varied by region, with hot spots around the UC Santa Cruz campus and lower voting rates around Watsonville.
(Blaire Hobbs / Lookout Santa Cruz)

The predictions that voter turnout highs in 2018 and 2020 would carry into the 2022 midterm election didn’t play out in California or Santa Cruz County.

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Santa Cruz County voter turnout in the November election fell by 10 percentage points from the highs of the 2018 midterm. The estimated 63.5% turnout on Nov. 8 was a disappointing showing for those who hoped the national energy around this midterm election would inspire voter passion in California and its locales.

Santa Cruz County often leads its Central Coast neighbors in turnout, a trend that continued despite the 2022 drop-off. Monterey, Santa Clara, San Mateo and San Benito counties saw voter turnout in the 2022 midterm fall between 13.5 and 17 points compared to 2018. California overall (49.5% turnout) saw a 15% decrease. At 58.1%, San Mateo County came closest to matching Santa Cruz’s voting rate.

So what happened?

Mindy Romero, founder and director of USC’s Center for Inclusive Democracy, says the biggest predictor of voter turnout is competitiveness at the top of the ticket. This showed up in states with high-profile races seen as political barometers for the country: Georgia (governor and U.S. Senate), Arizona (governor, Congress, secretary of state) and Pennsylvania (governor and U.S. Senate). California was less competitive, where top-of-the-ticket races such as governor, Senate and attorney general were handily won by incumbent Democrats.

“I don’t think it’s shocking but it is disappointing,” Romero said of California’s 2022 turnout. “We were so glad to see turnout be higher in the last few elections. The thought was that the national election energy would carry California into another high turnout year.”

In Santa Cruz County, those top-of-the-ticket races were even less competitive, many of them separated by 40-to-50-point margins. Local congressional incumbents Jimmy Panetta and Zoe Lofgren were supported with 61-point and 44-point victories, respectively, over their opponents; state Assembly candidates Gail Pellerin, Robert Rivas and Dawn Addis each earned more than 70% of the local vote. Several candidates in local races, specifically in South County, ran uncontested.

Much national passion in this midterm surrounded the Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, which erased federal protections over the right to an abortion and gave that power to state legislatures. Because of that decision, reproductive freedom was seen as a ballot issue in some states.

The Santa Cruz County Clerk’s office finished its vote count on Tuesday and certified the results of the Nov. 8...

In California, lawmakers put a constitutional amendment on the ballot, Proposition 1, that said the state would not interfere with reproductive freedom. Although the amendment passed easily — 67% support statewide, 81% in Santa Cruz — the issue was not enough to drive turnout in the same way as other states. Romero suggested this was because in California, a state where top lawmakers have already come out strongly against the Supreme Court decision, there is less concern about abortion access.

Santa Cruz County Democratic Party Chair Andrew Goldenkranz says the strong turnout in Santa Cruz, the five-county region and California as a whole in 2018 was helped by a nationalization of the election. That year marked the first major election since the country elected Donald Trump as president in 2016. The momentum carried over into the following presidential election. Looking at the 2022 returns, Goldenkranz says it’s clear the local electoral energy peaked in 2020. Part of that, he says, is because the stakes were so much higher in other states.

“The news kept talking about a national frenzy of high turnout but it didn’t translate in California,” Goldenkranz said. “I know that some people who would have otherwise been working hard on local turnout abandoned California all together and turned their energy toward Michigan, Arizona and Nevada.”

Mapping turnout

Voter turnout in the 2022 midterm varied by region throughout the county, according to precinct-level data from the Santa Cruz County Clerk’s office.

Some of the county’s highest turnout happened around the UC Santa Cruz campus, where turnout ranged from 74% to nearly 85%. The two UCSC precincts with the highest turnout also had some of the highest counts of same-day registrations.

South County offered a much different turnout story. Many of the precincts surrounding Watsonville showed turnout of under 50%, with some precincts as low as 25%. Goldenkranz says he is still trying to understand exactly why South County didn’t turn out, but said it was likely because of the unopposed city council races, confusion around Q and S, the dueling ballot measures on Watsonville’s growth boundaries, and a District 4 county supervisor race that turned many voters off after the sexual assault allegations made against candidate Jimmy Dutra late in the race.

In Santa Cruz proper, many of the precincts showed turnout rates in the mid-60s and 70s, with a handful falling near and below 50%.

Although typical practice is to put citizen initiatives on ballots where strong candidates will drive high turnout, Goldenkranz says Santa Cruz’s politics are distinctly the inverse.

“Here, and you saw the attempt this year, the idea is to use citizen initiatives to drive turnout,” Goldenkranz said, pointing to the controversial and failed ballot measures O (focused on the downtown library project) and N (a proposed tax on empty homes). Although the measures were consequential, Goldenkranz says they were not enough to push voter turnout to 2018 levels.


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