Sacramento voters send media a message

‘We don't know, we don't care, nobody is listening to us anyway'

The day after the June 3 primary election, a Sacramento Bee editorial page writer took to Twitter to boast about the Bee’s influence on local races: “Looks like #Sacramento voters followed @SacBeeEditBoard City Council recommendations: Harris, Schenirer, Jennings.”

That’s nice, but the Bee really has nothing to brag about. Nobody in the media should be too smug when only 20 percent of registered voters in the city turn out to vote.

Turnout was low throughout California, not just Sacramento. There were no citizen initiatives on the ballot, a weak field of challengers to Gov. Jerry Brown, and people may have been confused about the top-two primary.

Then there is the media’s role in driving down voter participation. The front-page story in the Bee the day before the election was, “Primary fails to stir any passion.” The San Francisco Chronicle had headlines predicting “embarrassingly low” turnout. Lots of papers ran stories like that.

“Elections are confidence games,” says Kim Alexander, executive director of the California Voter Foundation. And when news media repeatedly tells voters, “no one is voting,” it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Alexander adds that primaries are a holdover from a time when more people identified with political parties, so that’s partly to blame for the decline. And candidate campaigns, for all their sophistication, really only target the handful of people with a record of voting in every election. Otherwise, “the candidates aren’t asking for your vote,” Alexander says.

She says that those campaigns are also the main source of information that voters get about elections. That can’t possibly be a good thing, judging by the stack of election mailers Bites received, which varied from uninformative to deceitful.

A baseline level of knowledge about election issues takes some work. And most voters don’t have time to do it. We in the media can help, by offering context, showing readers the real connection between their vote and their daily lives, by covering local elections and local government in a way that is engaging, and gives people the good information they need to make decisions.

Mostly, we don’t do that. Our friends at the Bee, for example, are great at a lot of things. They can investigate the hell out of a bridge, if that’s what you need. But coverage of local government?

Look at the coverage of the Sacramento Kings arena story. A mile wide and an inch deep, as the cliché goes. They should have asked that bridge guy to help.

By refusing to do any sort of serious analysis of the arena deal, the Bee signaled to readers that the costs and benefits of that project really aren’t knowable to regular people. Maybe the project will be a boon, maybe a boondoggle. The Bee certainly wasn’t going to try and figure it out, and you probably shouldn’t, either.

The other message—very explicit from some writers and elected officials—was that voters don’t have a real role to play in big decisions like the arena. Leave it to the experts. And if you don’t like the results, you’ll have your say on Election Day. Not that anybody else will be voting.

The local contests were often covered in the most superficial way. One-off stories with one oversimplified angle. Post-election analysis was similarly shallow. The Bee summed up the city elections, “Arena deal, mayor win big.”

Never mind the District 3 city council race, where the most vocal critic of the arena deal, Jeff Harris, finished in first place on election night. Never mind the strong first-place finish by Kevin McCarty, perhaps the most visible arena skeptic on the city council, in his Assembly race.

But let’s look more closely at the city council race between Ali Cooper, who was very vocal about his opposition to the arena deal, and the incumbent, Jay Schenirer. Cooper got about 2,100 votes. He was outspent about five to one, counting Schenirer’s campaign coffers and the independent expenditures from Wal-Mart, Region Builders and other business interests that pitched in to save his seat.

With a big-money advantage, incumbency, and of course the Bee’s important endorsement, Schenirer managed 3,800 votes.

But 23,000 registered voters in District 5 said, “Screw it,” and didn’t bother to vote at all. So, what’s the message from voters? Just this: “We don’t know, we don’t care, nobody is listening to us anyway.”

And where would they get that idea?

Bites picks on the Bee because it is the paper of record. SN&R certainly could make better use of its limited resources for covering elections. That’s probably someone else’s column to write.

The point is, nobody in the media should be proud of those June 3 election results. It is, however, a good time to think about how we can better engage voters.