Voices & Choices

Case study: Racial turnout gap in San Bernardino primary elections

Case study: Racial turnout gap in San Bernardino primary elections

This is part 2 in a series on contingent runoffs in California. See part 1 here for an exploration of voter turnout trends in San Jose. 

San Bernardino experiences similar racial disparities in voter turnout as several of its neighbors in California. This research demonstrates how the practice of contingent runoff elections exacerbates those trends and how ranked choice voting (RCV) can help close the gap and empower more voters. 

San Bernardino and other California cities are unique because their general elections are structured as “contingent runoffs”, meaning the general election only occurs if there is no majority winner in the non-partisan primary election. Two of San Bernardino’s current city councillors did not face a general election in their most recent election; they won solely based on a primary election. 

Voter turnout in primaries tends to be significantly lower than in general elections, meaning the candidates selected in primary elections reflect the preferences of a small subset of voters. Even more concerning, that subset skews more towards White voters than in the general election, leading to less representative outcomes as voters of color are less likely to have their vote counted in those contests. 

Across the last two election cycles in San Bernardino, the voter turnout rate was highest among White voters for both primary and general elections. However, turnout among voters of color increases dramatically in general elections, partially closing the gap. For example, White voter turnout in 2020 doubled, from 37% in the primary to 74% in the general election. Turnout for every other group more-than-doubled, with turnout among Hispanic or Latino voters nearly tripling, going from 18% to 51% turnout. 

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The result of this turnout disparity is that voters of color make up a larger portion of the electorate in general elections than they do in primaries. Voters of color made up roughly two-thirds of the voters in general elections in 2018 and 2020, but a smaller portion in primary elections (57% and 61%). The racial makeup of the general electorate is therefore a closer match to that of San Bernardino as a whole, where nearly 80% of the citizen voting age population are voters of color according to the U.S. Census.

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San Bernardino could take steps towards closing the gap in racial turnout by ending primary elections in the spring and summer, and instead holding a single election in November. Candidates will all compete on the November ballot where they’ll face the largest and most diverse group of voters, and voters will have the freedom to express their full preferences by ranking the candidates in order of preference. Ranked choice voting has achieved exactly that in nearby San Francisco, Berkeley, Oakland, San Leandro, and dozens of other cities across the country.

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