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How Can California Increase Voter Turnout?

Linda Strean June 10, 2014
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Days after a California primary that may set a record for low voter turnout, election experts gathered to take stock: What happened last week and how can the state engage more Californians in elections?

PPIC research fellow Eric McGhee first provided a brief overview of how California’s electoral reforms have worked so far. He noted that the top-two primary probably did not worsen voter turnout but did nothing to reverse the decline either. In the absence of an exciting race or issue, it’s unlikely that a primary reform alone will draw more voters to the polls, he said.

The consensus among panelists is that there is no single reform that will reverse declining primary turnout. Improving outreach, educating voters, making registration and voting easier—all are needed to increase engagement.

Jill LaVine, Sacramento County voter registrar, highlighted the importance of voter education. Because there were no high-profile candidates or issues in the June primary, there wasn’t much advertising on television—where many voters get information. She noted the efforts that election officials have made to make voting easier—for example, an app to help voters find polling places, and phone banks to help answer questions. But many Californians are confused by the number of changes in the state’s primary, from the date to the process of voting itself. Along with other panelists, she stressed the importance of fully funding election programs that are mandated by the state. For example, the state no longer provides funding to counties to carry out the permanent vote-by-mail program, which is used by a majority of the state’s voters.

Ethan Jones, chief consultant of the Assembly Elections and Redistricting Committee, said the legislature is addressing structural barriers to voting, such as allowing residents to register and vote on the same day. This reform, which will go into effect in future elections, will allow Californians who become engaged in an issue or candidate at the last minute to participate. There have also been efforts to address attitudinal barriers, to allow 16- and 17-year-olds who are taking civics classes to “pre-register” to vote and be added to the voter rolls when they are 18, for example.

Astrid Garcia, deputy director of the nonpartisan Future of California Elections, noted that in a state as large and diverse as California, it’s crucial to address all the steps that lead up to voting and make the experience positive, so that voters turn out again in the next election. She noted that beginning this year, legal permanent residents can be poll workers, which will educate these Californians about the process and train a cadre of bilingual poll workers for the future. She also noted the importance of “meeting voters where they are,” by allowing residents to register to vote when they seek government services. She also said that it will take time to realize the results of these reforms.

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