Voter intimidation in Sacramento is real—and not what you think

Civic engagement leaders say confusion, not apathy, keeps underrepresented groups from polls

Civic engagement leaders say underrepresented voters can feel intimidated by their own ballots. Wellspring Women’s Center is offering a Vote by Mail tutorial on November 4.

Civic engagement leaders say underrepresented voters can feel intimidated by their own ballots. Wellspring Women’s Center is offering a Vote by Mail tutorial on November 4.


Soon after June’s barrel-scraping statewide primary set the lowest voter-turnout numbers on record, a familiar narrative began: Californians are too spoiled and too apathetic to participate in their democracy.

With the November 4 general election days away—and projections for another tepid turnout, despite a stacked ballot with a record number of bond and tax measures—a related question is getting plenty of play: Are the haters right? Do we just not care?

On the contrary, say local civic-engagement leaders. “They actually care quite a bit,” said Pam Haney of the Wellspring Women’s Center. “But they’re nervous to give their opinion if they don’t completely understand what they are voting for.”

Haney started a “Vote by Mail Party” this year in an effort to build a voting culture for the center’s minority and underrepresented clients. Volunteers walk the female participants and their families through the crowded ballot, one item at a time, in an effort to take the confusion out of voting.

“It’s not only about voting,” Haney added. “It’s about them feeling like they matter, because they do.”

Ironically, those who stand to lose the most by not participating in elections are the ones most likely to sit on their hands come Election Day, say experts.

“Socioeconomic status is the No. 1 predictor if you’ll vote,” said Mindy Romero, director of the California Civic Engagement Project at UC Davis.

She believes the key way to counteract this status quo is through community mobilization efforts like the one Haney is involved with.

Another person working on that front is Danielle Williams. An organizer with Sacramento Area Congregations Together, which is taking part in the national “Let My People Vote” campaign, Williams says churches provide great access to non-voting minority residents. “Imagine the power they would have locally in Sacramento [if they voted],” she said.

Her goal is to get all church attendees registered and out to the polls—next week and beyond. “It is our moral duty to vote, which has been significantly challenged across the country,” Williams added.

Although voting restrictions and voter-ID requirements have been enacted in other states, they haven’t reached California. And they most likely won’t, says professor Kimberly Nalder, director of Sacramento State’s Project for an Informed Electorate. “There’s no way that’s happening here,” she said.

But Romero says the system is failing voters in subtler ways. “There’s this attitude, especially from youth, this disconnection that politicians simply don’t care,” she said. “Kids are not really receiving the how, and especially the why, on voting.”

That’s where Senate Bill 897 hopes to come in. Signed into law by the governor last month, it aims to strengthen civic learning in adult-education programs and encourages a statewide review of high-school-civics education standards.

The review isn’t mandatory, however, and the bill’s author, former Sen. Darrell Steinberg, acknowledges that it’s just one piece of the puzzle.

“People just need to understand that if you don’t vote, your opinion matters less because you get what you choose or what you fail to choose,” he told SN&R before leaving office. “I do my very best to talk to fourth graders who visit the Capitol, and I tell them that I work for them.”

Haney wants to bring her women’s center’s clients to the Capitol during planned legislative field trips. Her goal is to increase community involvement in state politics, and make the white-domed building feel less foreign and inaccessible. In the land of fancy suits and ties, joked Haney, “You can’t say ’fuck’ at the Capitol.”

But more delicate voting-suppression efforts—from gerrymandered districts to negative campaigning to political candidates who only play to the extremist rafters—have already disillusioned the average voter.

Only 29.6 percent of Sacramento County’s registered voters—less than 204,000 individuals—turned out in June, the lowest figure in at least 78 years, dating back to the 1936 presidential primary, when voter participation numbers first started being tracked. (Sacramento’s participation figure drops to 21.3 percent if you consider the number of residents who are eligible to vote.) Statewide, only 25.2 percent of registered voters, or 18.4 percent of eligible voters, participated.

“If you don’t have a representative elective that really connects with its people, is it a robust democracy? Not really,” Romero said.

Which raises the question: If people stop participating in their democracy, can you still call it that?