California’s Changing Electoral Geography, Part I

The website of the California Secretary of State provides much valuable information on the recent election, which featured eleven state proposition. But the site also includes the five most pointless electoral maps I have ever seen, maps in which every county is depicted in an identical manner because the ballot initiative in question either carried all counties in the state or failed to carry a single one. As can be seen in the image posted here, the residents of every California country approved Proposition 40, concerned with redistricting the state senate. The map itself conveys virtually no information, although the fact that five such maps were generated does tell us something significant about the California state legislature; measures that are enthusiastically supported across the state and across party lines ought to be easily addressed though the legislative process, rather than turned over to the voters. Many observers regard this problem as relatively serious, as California ballot initiatives are often widely viewed as poorly written and confusing.

One can, however, use the numerical information that lies below the surface of these maps to construct much more informative images. Consider, for example, Proposition 36, which amended California’s “three strikes” law mandating lengthy prison terms for a third felony conviction, even if the crime in question was relatively minor. The “Three Strikes” law, which resulted in serious prison overcrowding, had become so unpopular that Proposition 36 was approved by voters in every county in the state. It did not, of course, carry every county to the same degree. I have therefore remapped the proposition’s outcome based on the percentage of “yes” votes. The patterns so revealed, however, are not particularly interesting. As would be expected, the state’s left-leaning counties, particularly those clustered around the San Francisco Bay Area, overwhelmingly approved the measure, while the more conservative inland counties, particularly those in the San Joaquin and Sacramento valleys, were less solid in their support.

The revised map of Proposition 35, a ballot measure designed to counter human trafficking, reveals less distinctive but more intriguing patterns. To begin with, the initiative gained massive support in every county in the state—evidently opposition to human trafficking is one issue that can rally conservatives and liberals in equal measure. What is odd is the fact that relatively low levels of support were encountered in some of California’s most left-leaning counties (San Francisco, Santa Cruz), and in some of its more right-leaning ones as well (Sutter, Amador). Overall, however, the gap between the most and least enthusiastic counties in regard to this proposition was not pronounced (Monterrey at 86 percent; San Francisco at 72 percent). Despite its triumph at the ballot box, Proposition 35 had been opposed by a number of prominent newspapers. The San Francisco Bay Guardian, an alternative weekly, went so far as to argue that, “Prop. 35 is a parade of horribles that could be used to make someone who peed in public turn over his Internet information and to threaten friends and relatives of sex workers. Under this law, the adult child of a sex worker who was living in her house with her financial support could be tagged a trafficker — and could face a long prison term and a lifetime of being tagged as a sex offender.” This editorial may have been partly responsible for the measure’s relatively poor showing in San Francisco.

The ballot initiative that best captures California’s basic patterns of political geography was probably Proposition 34, which would have eliminated the death penalty. The fact that this proposition was soundly defeated indicates that the California electorate is not as liberal as it is often considered to be, at least in terms of criminal justice; much more conservative states, such as West Virginia and North Dakota, eliminated the death penalty decades ago. As the map clearly shows, support for the measure was marked in the greater Bay Area, with San Francisco, Alameda, Marin, and Santa Cruz counties giving it more than 60 percent of their votes. As is typical, the liberal coastal zone from Monterrey County in the south to Mendocino County in the north supported the measure, as did populous Los Angeles County. The only interior county to vote in favor of Proposition 34 was Yolo in the Sacramento Valley, home of the University of California at Davis, and therefore a left-leaning enclave in an otherwise largely conservative area. Overwhelming opposition to the measure, in contrast, was encountered in the northern Sacramento Valley and in the far northeast, as would be expected.

A similar pattern, although shifted in the blue direction, is evident in the map of Proposition 30, which institutes a temporary sales tax increase to fund public education in the cash-strapped state. This key initiative, which was pushed hard by Governor Jerry Brown, was accepted by almost 54 percent of the state’s voters. Most coastal counties, and almost all in the northern half of the state, supported the measure, which was no surprise. Historically hyper-conservative Orange County on the southern coast, however, solidly voted against the proposition. Almost all interior countries rejected the measure, which was also no surprise. Exceptions include heavily Hispanic Imperial County in the far southeast and lightly populated Alpine and Mono to the east of the Sierra Nevada mountain range, countries that have recently attracted left-leaning outdoor-recreation enthusiasts. Perhaps most significant, however, was the support encountered in the central portion of the vast Central Valley, where Sacramento, San Joaquin, Stanislaus, and Merced counties all approved the measure. The latter three countries have been characterized by conservative voting patterns over the past several decades, but they now seem to be inclining more to the left. All three counties are economically distressed, and all are increasingly integrated with the much more liberal and prosperous Bay Area. Merced County is also home to the recently established University of California at Merced, and hence is expected to move leftward as the campus community grows.

The most intriguing 2012 California electoral map is that showing the results for Proposition 37, which would have required the labeling of food products that contain material from genetically modified organisms. Left-voting counties generally supported the measure while right-voting counties—and the state as a whole—rejected it. But some interesting exceptions stand out. Note that Yolo County, which is usually solidly “blue,” rejected the measure; the University of California at Davis may support a liberal community, but the campus is also a leading center of high-tech agricultural research. Siskiyou and Del Norte counties in the far north, in contrast, supported the measure yet are otherwise relatively conservative; in Del Norte, the proposition passed by a fifteen-percent margin. Such oddities merit further investigation. Neither Siskiyou nor Del Norte contains much technologically intensive agriculture, but that is also true in regard to a number of counties in California’s northeastern quadrant that solidly rejected the measure.

Tomorrow’s post will look at California’s vote in the presidential contest.



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