Testimony: California’s Exclusive Electorate & the 2016 Election
Mark Baldassare, PPIC president and CEO, testified before the Assembly Select Committee on Civic Engagement in Los Angeles today (May 13, 2016). Here are his prepared remarks.
“If the trends in voting continue, we face the prospect of an electorate making policy choices that neglect the realities and problems facing large segments of California society.” I wrote these words in a 2006 PPIC report, California’s Exclusive Electorate. The report analyzed trends in the state’s electorate from 1990 through May 2006 and polling results from the PPIC Statewide Surveys from 2005 to 2006. It revealed the gulf in political preferences between the state’s voters and the majority of its adult population, and suggested that if California’s nonvoting adult population made their voices heard at the ballot box, the political status quo could change—dramatically. In other words, the choices that voters make do not necessarily represent the preferences—or the needs—of California’s broader population. These disparities could be a problem for any state and are not unique to California.1 However, for California, a state that calls on its voters not only to elect representatives but also to make so much policy through ballot initiatives, these disparities raise real concerns.
In the years since that report, voter participation has continued to fall while the state’s population has become larger and more diverse. This troubling trend, especially notable in primaries and midterm elections, has motivated a statewide conversation about advancing civic engagement and increasing voter participation in California. Compounding this concern is our finding that California’s likely voters—who decide the fate of candidates and ballot initiatives—do not represent the demographics or the policy preferences of the state’s adult population.
At a time when new approaches to boosting voter turnout are being implemented and proposed, and as we approach the 2016 presidential election, it seemed important to update our work on the electorate. Using PPIC Statewide Survey data from 2015—drawn from about 12,000 interviews during seven monthly surveys that included voting and nonvoting adult Californians—our 2016 PPIC report paints a comprehensive picture of likely voters and their nonvoting counterparts. Once again, we find that the people who go to the polls in California are very different from those who don’t; they have different demographic characteristics—such as age, education, homeownership, immigration, income, and race/ethnicity. They also have different political attitudes and policy preferences. As California’s population continues to expand and change, the voting rolls are not keeping pace, and the state’s voters remain unrepresentative of its population.
In our 2016 report, we found a strong connection between economic inequality and political inequality. Likely voters in California tend to be older, white, college educated, affluent, U.S. born, and homeowners. They tend to identify themselves as “haves”—rather than “have nots”—when asked to choose between these two economic categories. Nonvoters tend to be younger, Latino, renters, less affluent, less likely to be college educated, and not U.S. born—and they generally identify themselves as “have nots.” Voters and nonvoters differ noticeably in their views on the role of government, taxes and spending, ballot choices, and elected officials—all of which come into play during an election year and influence governing choices in the long term.
California’s recent steps to encourage voter participation are a step in the right direction, but the divide between voters and nonvoters is deep and persistent. Why has the exclusive electorate phenomenon that we identified 10 years ago been so difficult to change? State laws that make it easier to register to vote and cast ballots are helping to expand the electorate, but only to a limited degree. When eligible adults are asked why they are not registered to vote, most cite a lack of confidence or a lack of interest in elections, a lack of trust in government, and a lack of time to vote. When registered voters are asked why they do not always vote, their top reasons are a lack of interest and time and low levels of confidence and trust.2
More fundamentally, the broad demographic and economic shifts underway in the state are shaping the divide between California’s voters and nonvoters today. Immigration is one important factor. Millions of California adults are documented and undocumented noncitizens. The share of the adult population that is undocumented is on the decline, but it is still a large segment of California society. Public and private efforts are needed to encourage more noncitizens to become citizens and join the voter rolls. Comprehensive federal immigration reform that provides a path to citizenship is another key ingredient in creating a larger and more diverse electorate. Other powerful socioeconomic factors help determine political participation. A significant share of California’s population is living in poverty, housing costs in coastal regions are high, and the state economy is likely to face a shortage of college-educated workers in the near future. Efforts to increase economic opportunity through policies that produce high-paying jobs, provide affordable housing, and increase college graduation rates would also grow and diversify the electorate.3
How will these ongoing trends in political and economic inequality affect the 2016 election cycle? As is always the case, voter turnout will increase and demographic profiles will broaden for the November presidential election. Still, we expect to see a large divide between voters and nonvoters this year. Once again, California faces the prospect of an electorate making policy decisions that neglect the realities and problems facing large and growing segments of society.
What are the larger consequences of uneven participation rates and low voter turnout? First, the fact that a relatively small group of voters is making decisions about elected representatives and public policy raises serious questions about the legitimacy of the democratic system. Next, because the haves in society are the frequent voters, and so many of the have nots are not voting or are not registered to vote, our electoral process does not reflect the broad economic and political interests of all adults. Last, likely voters and nonvoters have different perspectives on the role of government, government spending, ballot choices, and the state’s elected officials.
What might happen if voters were more representative of California’s adult population? There could be more voter support for policies that increase spending for health care and education, and for an expansion of the government’s role in improving the lives of immigrants and the less economically advantaged. If large numbers of new voters continue to register with “no party preference” and the proportion of major party voters continues to shrink, the power of independent voters in determining election outcomes could be bolstered. Finally, growth and change in the electorate could initially produce more political instability, as elected officials, candidates, political parties, and initiative campaigns reach out to a larger and more diverse electorate.4
In the long run, having a larger and more engaged electorate that is more representative of the people of California would be a source of political stability for a state that increasingly relies on the ballot box to make its major policy decisions.