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The Turnout Turnaround

Eric McGhee December 16, 2016

Voter turnout in California was dismal in 2014—record lows in the primary and general elections prompted serious concern about how to turn the problem around. The state has been aggressive in adopting reforms to promote turnout—including a system for registering online, “conditional” registration, which allows people to vote after registering as late as election day, and a system to register voters mostly by default via the DMV.

The Secretary of State recently certified the vote count for the November election, and the results suggest the state is heading in the right direction. Turnout was 58.7% among those eligible to vote, easily higher than the 30.9% showing in the midterm election two years ago, but also higher than the presidential election four years ago (55.5%) and almost as high as the notably high-turnout election in 2008 (59.2%).

In fact, while low turnout in the 2014 general election put California farther behind other states, this year’s turnout almost brought the state up to the national average. As the graph shows, turnout in presidential elections has been climbing in all states since about 2000. But this is the first time that the upward trend has been stronger in California than elsewhere.

Some of this upward surge may reflect higher registration rates: the share of eligible residents who are registered rose this election year to a 20-year high. The state’s recent reforms can’t explain this increase because most of them have not been implemented yet. The exception is online registration, which went live during the 2012 presidential election cycle and has proved popular. Early evidence suggested that the new system’s overall impact on registration was small, but this could have changed over time. In any case, the higher registration rate this year might lead to higher levels of participation in the future.

There are reasons to think that the higher turnout and registration were driven by a more mobilized Latino population. Certainly, Latino registration increased this year, perhaps in response to the tone and content of the presidential campaign. And Californians voted at even higher rates for Hillary Clinton than they did for Barack Obama, something many have also attributed to increased Latino engagement. However, there is little support for this story in the county-level results. The size of each county’s eligible Latino population explains almost none of the variation in turnout this year. In fact, the higher turnout this year was evenly distributed across the state.

Despite the signs of increased engagement, it is too early to say the state has come out of its turnout slump. As the figure makes clear, turnout in presidential elections is not the state’s biggest problem. The challenge is and has been midterm turnout. A growing share of the voters who participate in presidential elections do not vote in the gubernatorial election two years later. The last two election cycles—which have seen exceptionally high presidential turnout and exceptionally low midterm turnout—have not departed from this pattern but exemplified it.

The state should be proud of the progress made this election, and there are grounds for optimism as the state rolls out its election reforms over the next few years. But the positive signs from this election cycle should not make policymakers complacent about the challenges that lie ahead.

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