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California’s Exclusive Electorate: Who Votes and Why It Matters

Mark Baldassare | March 2016

Summary

The people who go to the polls in California are very different from those who
don’t; they vary widely across key demographic indicators such as race, age,
education, homeownership, and income. They also have very different political
attitudes and policy preferences. As California’s population continues to expand
and change, its voting rolls are not keeping pace and its voters have become
unrepresentative of its population.

Voters in California tend to be older, white, college educated, affluent, and
homeowners. They also 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, and less likely to be
college educated than likely voters—and they generally identify themselves as
have nots.

The economic differences between voters and nonvoters reflect the growing
economic divide that has surfaced as one of the most important policy issues in
the 2016 election year—and they have important implications for policymaking.
Voters and nonvoters vary noticeably in their attitudes toward the role of government, government 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 has recently taken steps to encourage voter participation, but our
research suggests that the divide between voters and nonvoters is deep and
persistent. What more can the state do to diversify its electorate? Further
changes in the voter registration and voting process may help, but only to a
limited degree. Civic engagement is critical—as is building confidence in
elections and trust in government. Public and private efforts, including targeted drives to increase civics education, voter registration, and voting in
underrepresented communities, could result in broader representation of
Californians’ views.

These efforts will not be easy—there are powerful socioeconomic factors in
determining political participation. Broader endeavors to increase economic
opportunity, such as policies that produce high-paying jobs, affordable housing,
and higher college graduation rates, could also help lead to a larger, more
diverse voting population. Efforts are also needed to encourage more noncitizens to become citizens so that they can join the voter rolls. In a state that
increasingly relies on the ballot box to make major policy decisions—and is
expected to have a large number of initiatives on the November 2016 ballot—
a more engaged and representative electorate would be a source of long-term
stability, helping to create a stronger, more united future for California.

This research was supported with funding from The James Irvine Foundation.

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