Most Valley voters skipped the primary election. Experts say why – and what it means for November

On March 17, 2024 by Victor A. Patton
Elections coordinator Joe Rivera arranges voting guides in various languages in Merced County, Calif. on March 5, 2025. Photo by Christian De Jesus Betancourt/CVJC.

LOS BANOS, March 17, 2024 – Will voters who were absent in the primary go to the polls in November? See what experts are expecting.

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If you know a registered voter in Merced County, chances are that person didn’t bother submitting a ballot for the March 5 primary.

While that may sound discouraging, experts say there’s a good chance it won’t have much bearing on what turnout looks like in November. 

According to the Merced County Registrar of Voters, as of  5 p.m. Friday data show about 28.39% of the county’s 128,287 registered voters participated in the primary.

The last time the numbers were that low for a presidential primary was 2012, when 27.02% of Merced County voters participated, according to numbers from the Secretary of State.

Voter turnout was similarly low in other nearby Valley counties, although Merced County was at the bottom of the heap.

As of March 5 turnout for other San Joaquin Valley counties included: Fresno County (29.72%), Stanislaus County (30.25%), Madera County (37.10%) and San Joaquin County (33.8%).  

The statewide average for turnout wasn’t much better than the Valley, with 33.6% of registered California voters casting ballots in the 2024 primary election. 

The voter turnout numbers in Merced County were higher for the March 2020 and June 2016 presidential primary elections – 43.23% and 42.11% respectively.

Why did so few voters turn out?

Nate Monroe, political science professor at UC Merced, said voters broadly fit into three categories: 1). Those who vote out of a sense of duty in every election; 2). Those who vote during an election to express a certain opinion or 3). Those who vote with the belief their participation may be pivotal to deciding an election outcome. 

Monroe said many of the 28.9% of voters who did turn out for the March 5 primary probably fit into the first category. For the other two categories, there may not have been much motivation to vote in the primary. 

Case in point, regardless of how any Californian voted in the presidential primary, President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump had already solidified their respective Democratic and Republican nominations to run for a November rematch.

There were other races on the primary ballot that, regardless of who received a higher margin of votes in March, still won’t be decided until November. 

For example, Republican John Duarte and Democrat Adam Gray were listed on the primary ballot in the battle for California’s 13th Congressional District seat. But even before a single primary vote was cast, Duarte and Gray were already set for a November runoff. 

“I think one side of the story is that the pieces that have to be in play to get moderate or high voter turnout, they just aren’t there in a primary election where you don’t have real serious competition for the presidential nomination,” Monroe said.

Monroe also explained that most campaigns, particularly in Congressional races, are saving the bulk of their resources for the November general election – where spending money can make a big difference in close races. 

Some of the most important national races in November for control of the House of Representatives are in California’s San Joaquin Valley. 

With the level of spending focused on those races by campaigns, political action committees and other powerful interests, Monroe won’t be surprised if that results in higher turnout at Valley ballot boxes in November. 

“The Congressional races are going to draw an enormous amount of money, focus, energy, media attention, human capital and hours trying to bring voters to the polls on each side (in November) to get their candidates across the finish line,” Monroe said. 

“And so I think where you get low turnout in (the primary) election, you’re going to very likely see equally surprising high numbers of turnout in the general election, not just because voters are going to care a lot more and see their role as more important, but also because campaigns have saved a lot of money.” 

Melvin Levey, Merced County registrar of voters, said while it’s difficult to pinpoint any particular reason for the low primary turnout, a smaller ballot with fewer issues compared to prior years may have played a role. “For a lot of reasons here, voters just didn’t get excited statewide about some of the things that were on the ballot,” he said. 

Levey, like Monroe, said the amount of campaigning happening at a given time plays a big role in voter turnout. And while he doesn’t have a crystal ball, Levey said he too expects many more voters to turn out in November. 

During the 2020 general election, voter turnout in Merced County was 78.72%. Levey said that was near or at the all-time record.

In addition to the presidential and Congressional races, Levey said many more local races will be included on the November ballot. Among those will be Merced’s mayoral seat and three Merced City Council seats.

“Back to that point about voters turn out when things get them really excited, there will simply be more on the (November) ballot, and so there will be more things to excite different people to get out and vote,” Levey said. “So we’re certainly approaching (the November general election) like it will be at or above record turnout.”  

A voter dropbox is shown outside the Merced County Administration Building in Merced, Calif. where the Registrar of Voters is located. CVJC photo

Where local results stand in Merced County

Merced County released its latest vote numbers at 5 p.m. March 15. As of now, there are only 817 votes left to count. Levey said the ballots that are left come from all over Merced County, and are not concentrated from any particular location.

Measure C, the half-cent sales tax that supports staffing at the City of Merced’s police and fire departments, will pass with 68.57% yes votes – well above 50% plus one threshold needed for it to pass.

In Merced County Supervisors District 1, Former sheriff’s sergeant Jim Pacheco is on track to defeat incumbent Rodrigo Espinosa, with 54.33% to 22.45% of the vote respectively. Pacheco needed 50% of the vote to avoid a November runoff.

Challengers in the District 1 race Maria Soto and Sonia Alshami trailed far behind.

In Merced County Supervisors District 2, incumbent Josh Pedrozo will defeat challenger Annissa Fragoso, 68.94 to 30.48% respectively.

In Merced County Supervisors District 4, incumbent Lloyd Pariera is on track for another term, with 61.70% of the vote over Dennis Brazil (19.29%) and Jim Soria (18.66%).

Monika Saini-Donabed is on track to be elected as Merced County Superior Court judge, with 63.30% of votes over Carlos Dammeier (20.32%) and Regina Sonia Lea-Adams (16.38%).

In Congressional District 13, incumbent Duarte will have a November rematch with Gray. They have 55% to 45% respectively in the primary.

When will the vote count be official?

Levey said he tentatively expects to certify Merced County’s final election results on Friday, March 29. California gives registrars like Levey 30 days after the election to certify the vote.

“Historically it usually hasn’t taken the full 30 days,” Levey said. 

In the meantime, Levey and his staff will be counting final votes that arrived at his office at the deadline. Mail-in votes had to be postmarked by March 5 and arrive at the Registrar of Voters Office by 5 p.m. March 12. 

Levey and his staff are also confirming provisional votes or others that require some investigation. “If there are no signatures on envelopes, we reach out to voters and then they can reach back out to us to secure their signature,” he said.

Victor A. Patton is editor-in-chief of The Merced FOCUS, a nonprofit newsroom based in Merced.

Victor A. Patton
The Merced FOCUS
Central Valley Journalism Collaborative 
(559) 287-4012
Twitter: @VAPwriter 

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