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A record number of Californians are set to head to the polls Tuesday, with 19.6 million — 78.16 percent of eligible voters; the highest percentage since 1950 — registered to vote, according to the Secretary of State's Office.

In Santa Barbara County as of the Oct. 22 voter registration deadline, elections officials reported 217,417 registered voters — a slight decline from 2016’s historic peak but the highest number of registered voters participating in a midterm election.

"Voter registration has increased significantly," said county Registrar of Voters Joe Holland. "We’re at over 217,000 registered voters, which is a 21,000 increase — more than 10 percent — compared to 2014."

Holland said the county is on track to break records for the number of votes cast during a gubernatorial race as, come Tuesday, voters weigh in on more than a hundred candidates and ballot measures.

Shifting dynamics

During the 2016 presidential election, nearly half of Santa Barbara County's 222,983 registered voters favored former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton over now-President Donald Trump. Though Clinton failed to garner enough electoral votes, her candidacy galvanized the county’s Democratic base: 96,618 voters registered as Democrats in 2016 — more than the number that registered during Barack Obama’s historic first campaign.

Even though Trump trailed Clinton countywide by nearly 30 percent, the number of registered Republicans got a bump during the 2016 election too. That year, the GOP experienced a nearly 10-percent jump in the number of registered voters — the first notable increase after seven years of decline.

While the number of registered voters in both major parties has fallen slightly since then, the strong gains Democrats made in 2016 bolstered the party’s base and expanded their edge over their Republican counterparts.

There are nearly 37,000 more registered Democrats in the county than Republicans heading into Election Day. The Santa Barbara County Elections Office reported 92,086 voters — 42 percent — registered blue compared to the 55,810 voters — 26 percent — registered red.

Since 2008, the number of unaffiliated voters who decline a party designation during registration has continued to climb. Comprising almost 27 percent of the county electorate this election cycle, the 58,575 voters with no party preference exceed the number of registered Republicans.

Lompoc, Santa Maria and Guadalupe have a greater number of registered Democrats and voters with no political preference than registered Republicans. Only two northern Santa Barbara County cities — Buellton and Solvang — have more registered Republicans than Democrats.

Five percent of voters — 10,946 — are registered as members of the Green, American Independent, Peace and Freedom, Libertarian or other political parties.

Turnout, turnout, turnout

The county Elections Office issued 160,868 vote-by-mail ballots this year. As of Friday morning, 56,000 ballots had been returned to the office — a 25-percent increase compared to 2014. 

"Midterm elections typically can't compare to presidential elections," explained Holland, who said that at this point during the 2016 presidential race 68,000 vote-by-mail ballots had been returned to the county. Midterm voter turnout typically hovers between 60 and 65 percent, he added; presidential races often exceed 80 percent.

With more than 100,000 voters yet to cast or return a ballot, advocacy groups and campaign volunteers working to support candidates say driving up voter turnout will be key in tipping the scales for one party or another. Four days of targeted voter outreach across the county and in the Santa Maria Valley began Saturday morning, with volunteers contacting prospective voters over the phone and through texts, taking to social media and walking door-to-door in neighborhoods across the area.

“The most effective [way to reach a voter] is always going to be in-person, at-the-door voter contact,” said Austin Stukins, campaign manager for Justin Fareed, the Republican challenger hoping to unseat first-term incumbent Rep. Salud Carbajal, a Democrat, in the 24th Congressional District. Drawing volunteers from Republican student groups at Cal Poly, UCSB and in Orcutt as part of a focused get-out-the-vote event, Stukins said the coordinated effort caps off extensive voter identification and campaign efforts.

"You’ve been talking to [voters] all cycle … and you want to send them a message to be a voter, participate in the electoral process and remind them that their vote is important," he said. "You always see [voter turnout] wane in the midterm. Our job is to find [voter] propensity (the likelihood of a voter participating in the election), their likelihood to vote for Justin ... and encourage them to be a voter on election day."

Across town in a Santa Maria office off East Jones street, a small group of volunteers sorted through piles of voter contact sheets broken down block-by-block, street-by-street and neighborhood-by-neighborhood. Coordinated by local advocacy group CAUSE (Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy) Action Fund, a political non-profit that backs partisan and non-partisan candidates and ballot measures, organizer Joana Barrera said the group focuses on outreach and engagement of low-propensity voters, monolingual Spanish speakers, newly naturalized citizens and others beginning to understand the democratic process.

Though local politics tend to lean conservative, Barrera said that in addition to backing Carbajal in the midterm, the group has endorsed candidates for state, city council and school board races, which are non-partisan.

"The Trump election has driven a lot of folks to come out and get more engaged in local politics," she said, adding that she has seen an increase in first-time and young voters.

"There are four Democrats running in SM which I don’t know has ever happened before," said Gail Teton-Landis, chair of the Santa Barbara County Democratic Party. "We’re totally excited to have so much going on in Santa Maria. We’re predicting high turnout and are working all over the county with hundreds of volunteers."

Younger voters engaging

Voter registration records published by the California Secretary of State's Office show that for the second consecutive statewide election, Santa Barbara County voters between the ages of 18 and 25 are the second-largest group registered to vote in the November election. Comprising 18.4 percent of the registered electorate — 39,969 voters — a record number of teens and first-time voters motivated by reaching voting age, the Parkland school shootings, and the Trump administration are projected to cast a ballot.

A recent national survey conducted by the non-profit, non-partisan Education Week Research Center found that 63 percent of 18- and 19-year-old possible voters plan to vote in the midterm election. Thirty-percent of those surveyed say they want to cast a vote for or against the direction of the Trump administration, while 28 percent say they want to support a particular candidate.

"The [city] council really doesn't listen to us," said first-time voter Ines Ruiz, 18, a senior at Santa Maria High School. Recalling her experience at a 2014 protest to oppose the opening of an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) facility in the city, Ruiz said she was shocked when the council voted to approve the project despite vocal public opposition.

"There has been a want for change [among the community,] but there hasn't been much of it," she said. "There's a disconnect [between voters and the city council] because they (council members) don't come from the same background. Also, it's not much of a young council. I feel that they don't represent the youth or the Latino [community.]"

Teton-Landis said the county Democratic party's emphasis on education, the environment and worker's rights resonates with registered Democrats and independent voters. In addition to daily canvassing and regular phone banking, she said the party has expanded outreach efforts to target young and newly registered voters.

"Santa Maria has a pretty young population and most, if not all four of our candidates — Gloria Soto, Rafa Gutierrez, Abe Melendrez and Diana Perez — are on the young side," she said. "Having them out there knocking on doors and speaking to voters will help."

Though politics wasn't his first inclination, Cal Poly freshman Lee Conway, 18, said the assumption that youth tend to lean toward Democrat or progressive politics is a generalization.

"Not all young people are going to be liberal and not all old people are going to be conservative," the second-time voter said. "It’s about you and your individual values; [politics] has nothing to do with age, race or religion and what you believe."

A North Bay native, Conway said he chose to attend Cal Poly due to the school's engineering reputation. During his first weeks, he sought out a group of like-minded individuals with similar political beliefs to "both challenge and be challenged by." After joining the school's College Republicans chapter and hearing a presentation about Fareed's campaign, Conway said he decided to take an active role in the campaign.

"My main focus wasn’t necessarily any particular political viewpoint, but more the fact that I was trying to do my part to get involved and lead by example," he explained. "Some of the other kids say they want to do things but don’t always go into them."

Students at Hancock College have a two-day voter, non-partisan voter information program planned for Monday and Election Day. Event organizer Frankie Maldonado, who serves as president of the school's Associated Student Body Government, stressed the importance of electoral participation among young voters regardless of party affiliation or political belief.

"[Young voters] need to understand that their vote matters," the 19-year-old first-time voter said. "One vote can make a difference for a candidate or issue; when people say it doesn't it's not true."

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Mathew Burciaga covers education in Santa Maria and the surrounding area for Lee Central Coast Newspapers. Follow him on Twitter @math_burciaga


Education Reporter

Santa Maria Times reporter Mathew Burciaga covers education for Lee Central Coast Newspapers.