Ethnic Plurality Complicates Issues, Changes Voter Turnout Patterns
THE most willing voters in the nation's most populous state - 68 percent to 75 percent of those eligible turn out - inhabit four mountain counties (Alpine, Sierra, Nevada, and Mono). The most reluctant voters - at 34 percent to 40 percent - farm the agricultural counties (Kings and Merced).
Most staunchly Republican is the rich, suburban conclave south of Los Angeles, Orange County. And most staunchly Democratic is the liberal conclave of San Francisco.
But the most revealing block of California voters, say a host of analysts and political scientists, is burgeoning Riverside County.
About 50 miles east of Los Angeles, Riverside is one of the fastest growing counties in the country. Its population has doubled in 10 years, and several sections have quadrupled in Asians and Latinos. It is being called the nation's most cogent example of the fringe-suburban outpost increasingly tagged as "exurb" or "edge city."
"This is the electorate that is going to drive the politics of this state for decades," says Sherry Jeffe, a political scientist at the Claremont Graduate School. "Voter tensions are occurring there that will bring a sea-change in the face of governance."
A phenomenon increasingly hitting such key urban areas as New York, Washington, Philadelphia, and Houston, exurbs are new concentrations of people that have moved well beyond the city limits to find affordable housing, cleaner air, and less congestion, but still depend on their host cities for jobs, and transportation, and political representation.
Typically, exurbs represent net gains for Republicans because they are populated by the affluent or upwardly mobile.
In 1981, Orange County was the only county in the state with more registered Republicans than Democrats. Fifteen others have since followed suit. Two of California's seven new congressional seats will represent Riverside.
They "will almost certainly go Republican" says Lorn Foster, a professor of government at Pomona College.
But the Riverside political equation is difficult to calculate, and may not follow the Republican trend. Eight of the state's 40 fastest-growing cities are within the county, according to the 1990 United States census. Some of these cities are 75 percent or more Latino. Others have high concentrations of Asians.
These minority groups typically register Democrat but vote much less often than whites and Republicans. Thus, countywide voter participation is one of the lowest in the state.
"Riverside has become the archetypal California exurb," adds Alan Heslop, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College. "The diaspora of people fleeing other areas may have given us a perfect replica of the state's political/ethnic profile." The key to its future is the empowerment of its not-yet-activist population, he says.
The newly formed Green Party - now the state's fourth largest - has nibbled away at both Republican and Democratic numbers. Habitual split-ticket voters, minorities have predilections to vote candidates over parties, which also fogs the predictability of the new political entity.
For the moment, the growth in minority populations does not yet mean a shift of power into the hands of Asians and Latinos. Historically, analysts say, it takes minority groups a generation or longer to become part of the political mainstream. (See story, Page 8.)
But a look at the burgeoning shifts does underline the increasing balkanization of the electorate that both confounds politicians and complicates local, state, and federal governance.
"These communities have a higher frustration level and higher alienation with politics," says Larry Berg, a political analyst at University of Southern California. "You just can't be pushed that far out from where you work without having bad feelings." People living close to their economic margin, adds Mr. Berg, add heat to every debate from taxes to services to zoning.
From his office in Sacramento, state Sen. Bob Presley (D) of Riverside rattles off a standard shopping list of his constituent's concerns for the 1990s: employment, crime, health care, education, quality of life.
Senator Presley says addressing these concerns has become increasingly difficult because of the swelling and diversification of his constituency.
"The ethnic mix alone in California is something that complicates the doling of social services to a degree the voter cannot fathom," says Presley. Voters "vent their wrath at politicians no matter what their stripes."
Norton Younglove, 62-year resident and chairman of the Riverside County Board of Supervisors, says events of the past two decades have put politicians in a Catch-22.
"Voters have been limiting what government can do with things like Prop. 13 [which lowered property taxes to existing homeowners] and entitlements to education," says Mr. Younglove. "And then we raise hell when they don't do anything."
Presley and Younglove both say voters need to acquaint themselves with existing laws that limit politicians. Voters ought to painstakingly examine the voting records and position papers of candidates so that coherent voting patterns can produce more coherent policy.
"Orange County went through the same growth changes [as Riverside] 30 years ago," says Presley. "But Riverside is making the same mistakes in growth management, and housing and commercial zoning."
Younglove also says the growth of exurbs during recession has produced a voter that is edgy, conservative, but ready to vote his pocketbook. This year could be the year that Riverside's Republican voting record will be tested.
m hearing a lot less respect for [President] Bush's capability to get us through this recession," says Younglove. "This war-glory stuff has worn off and people are ready for the right Democrat."