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California’s Low Voter Turnout Driven by Demographics

Latino, Asian American, And Young People Shaping Election Trends

SAN FRANCISCO, June 26, 2017—California’s low voter turnout has two elements: a decline in the voter registration rate relative to other states and a decline in turnout in midterm elections. Each has a different origin in the state’s demographics, according to a report released today by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC).

  • Registration rates. California’s Latino and Asian American communities have become eligible to vote at faster rates than their counterparts in other states. At the same time, Latinos and Asian Americans register at lower rates than members of other groups, leading to an overall decline in California’s registration rate compared with states where eligible voting populations are not changing as quickly. The registration problem is especially pronounced among Latinos and Asian Americans more closely connected to the immigrant experience, that is, naturalized citizens and children born in the United States to immigrant parents.
  • Turnout. The drop in midterm turnout is largely about age. Young people have been voting at slightly higher rates in presidential elections but at much lower rates in midterms than voters of the same age did two decades ago. The state’s expanding Latino and Asian American populations do not play a role in declining turnout. Once registered, these groups have voted at consistent rates over time.

Despite increases in California’s registration rate and turnout in the 2016 presidential election, broader voting trends have been disappointing, with record low turnout in the 2014 primary and general elections. A PPIC report in 2016 showed that the state’s registration rate has been falling compared with other states. The report also found that turnout among those who are registered has been falling in midterm elections while remaining largely flat in presidential elections.

PPIC’s new report, California’s Missing Voters: Who Is Not Voting and Why, identifies possible causes of these trends in electoral participation. It is based on an analysis of the effects of a wide range of factors, including ethnicity, age, and voter registration history.

“Latinos, Asian Americans, and young people represent California’s future and they will dictate the future of electoral participation as well,” said Eric McGhee, the report’s author and a PPIC research fellow. “California has been a creative and energetic force for voter participation, and it must redouble its efforts to ensure future civic engagement.”

The report also suggests policies to address the state’s voting trends. Recent California reforms to address the process of voting—such as automated registration—may help alleviate registration and turnout problems. But process reforms are not enough, the report argues. They need to be coupled with aggressive outreach targeting Latinos, Asian Americans, and young people.

Registration drives aimed at Latinos and Asian Americans are likely to be more successful if they involve members of these communities making personal connections. Special focus should be placed on first-generation immigrants and their children because they are the least likely to register to vote.

California’s young people—who show up for presidential elections but increasingly stay home for midterms—present a different problem. These “drop-off voters” may be good targets for mobilization in midterm elections because they have already registered and, in many cases, voted. The PPIC report finds evidence that vote-by-mail registration helps ensure more consistent participation. This suggests that California’s recently adopted law potentially providing all registrants a default vote-by-mail ballot could help raise midterm turnout, though the cautious roll-out of that law makes sense given the magnitude of the change.

ABOUT PPIC

The Public Policy Institute of California is dedicated to informing and improving public policy in California through independent, objective, nonpartisan research. We are a public charity. We do not take or support positions on any ballot measure or on any local, state, or federal legislation, nor do we endorse, support, or oppose any political parties or candidates for public office. Research publications reflect the views of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of our funders or of the staff, officers, advisory councils, or board of directors of the Public Policy Institute of California.

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