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It’s Election Day, and Californians are very eager to join voters across the nation in choosing a path to a better future. In a year of unprecedented crises, the most important issues on Californians’ minds include COVID-19, the economy, global warming, housing affordability, homelessness, and wildfires, according to the October PPIC survey. Most Californians also say that racism is a national problem today, including a criminal justice system that does not treat people equally regardless of race, according to the July PPIC survey. This year, a confluence of surprising events has led to a unique moment when Californians are expressing great interest in making decisions about their leaders and laws through the power of the ballot box.

The latest statistics from the California Secretary of State point to the most state voters in history (22 million)—about 2.6 million more than in the 2016 presidential election—and the highest percentage of eligible Californians registered to vote in the past 80 years (88%). For the first time, in response to the coronavirus outbreak, all registered voters were sent a vote-by-mail ballot and, as of this writing, about 12 million ballots have been cast by mail or in person. California appears on course to set modern-day records for the number of votes cast and voter turnout.

California’s decision to provide mail-in ballots for all registered voters was the right choice in the eyes of the electorate. Seventy-three percent of likely voters said this was a good idea in the May PPIC survey. Six in ten likely voters say they have a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in the system in which votes are cast and counted in California elections—up substantially from the four in ten  who held this positive view in the September 2019 PPIC Survey. As other states struggle with their voting systems, only about two in ten Californians express very little confidence in their state’s voting system.

In what many describe as the most consequential election in their lifetime, 72% of likely voters are more enthusiastic about voting in this presidential election—a record high in PPIC surveys. Before the last presidential election, 49% were more enthusiastic, according to the October 2016 PPIC survey. Today, solid majorities of likely voters are more enthusiastic about voting in this presidential election across partisan groups (79% Democrats, 74% Republicans, 59% independents). Majorities across traditionally under-represented groups are more enthusiastic about voting this year, and this may help to close the significant gaps in age, income, and race/ethnicity between voters and nonvoters long noted in PPIC reports.

California is a blue state with little drama about the outcome at the top of the ticket. There has been scant movement in the presidential race this year and few voters are undecided in these hyper-partisan times. Nonetheless, voters of all political stripes do not want to miss their chance to weigh in as they have closely watched this race throughout a tumultuous year. Californians’ determination to have a voice in the presidential outcome will have ripple effects for a handful of competitive down-ballot races for congressional, state senate and assembly seats and, importantly, on state and local ballot measures.

Californians will be making major policy decisions as they vote on 12 state propositions on the ballot—ranging from stem cell research bonds (Proposition 14) to replacing money bail (Proposition 25). Six in ten likely voters say that they are satisfied with the way that the initiative process is working today—despite having deep reservations about the outsized role of special interests, the number of state propositions, and the complexity of citizens’ initiatives that are on the ballot. Decisions on these state propositions are especially fraught at a time when many have a pessimistic outlook on the state and the nation. For anyone in need of last-minute help on ballot choices, solid nonpartisan information is available in the state’s voter guide.

PPIC is keeping a close eye on the election outcome and will be exploring its implications in PPIC blog posts and in upcoming PPIC Statewide Surveys. Until then, stay safe and vote!

PPIC is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization. PPIC does not take or support positions on any ballot measure or on any local, state, or federal legislation, nor does it support, endorse, or oppose any political parties or candidates for public office.

The top two issues on the minds of Californians are COVID-19 and jobs and the economy, according to the latest PPIC statewide survey. Concerns about issues can affect how adults vote—and in what may be the most consequential election in a lifetime, 72% of likely voters are more enthusiastic than usual about voting in November, which is a record high for a PPIC survey.

On October 22, PPIC researcher Rachel Lawler presented findings from the survey, which gauges attitudes and policy preferences of adults around the state. Lawler then discussed insights and takeaways from the report with Mark Baldassare, PPIC president and CEO.

Approval ratings for President Trump stand at 35% among California adults. The number has remained fairly consistent since he took office, although more than eight in ten Republicans approve of the president. As the November election approaches, California likely voters prefer the Biden-Harris ticket by 26 points over the Trump-Pence ticket. Partisans overwhelmingly support their candidate in the presidential race as well as prefer their party’s candidate for Congress.

California voters remain divided on upcoming ballot measures, where support for Proposition 15 and Proposition 16 has changed little since September. A slim majority support Prop 15, which changes tax assessment of commercial properties; voters are more likely to vote no on Prop 16, which repeals the ban on affirmative action.

However, with coronavirus still a top concern, many Californians share similar attitudes toward a COVID-19 vaccine. “Efforts to develop and test COVID-19 vaccines are currently underway, and there is a possibility that one or more may be available by the end of the year,” Lawler said. A majority of adults would take a vaccine if one becomes available—but trust diverges sharply along racial and ethnic lines. Asian Americans and whites are more open to taking the vaccine, while Latinos and African Americans express hesitation.

There is less consensus than in past surveys as to the most important issue facing our state. In addition to COVID and the economy, topics like global warming, homelessness, housing availability, the state budget, and wildfires rise to the top for many Californians. “It’s such a remarkable list because it’s been such an unprecedented year,” Mark Baldassare said. The extensive list gives a sense of the scope of the crisis Californians see the state and nation facing today.

Another surprise was the record level of enthusiasm people expressed for voting. “Nearly three out of four and across political parties are enthusiastic about voting,” Baldassare said. “We are anticipating very strong turnout this year, and this will have implications for everything on the ballot.”

This research was supported with funding from the Arjay and Frances F. Miller Foundation, the James Irvine Foundation and the PPIC Donor Circle.

As part of our Speaker Series on California’s Future, PPIC invites elected leaders from across the political spectrum to participate in public conversations. The purpose is to give Californians a better understanding of how our leaders are addressing the challenges facing our state.

PPIC is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization. PPIC does not take or support positions on any ballot measure or on any local, state, or federal legislation, nor does it support, endorse, or oppose any political parties or candidates for public office.

Local governments have been hit hard by the pandemic and its economic consequences. Last week, two California mayors—Kevin Faulconer in San Diego and Libby Schaaf in Oakland—talked with Mark Baldassare about the challenges they are facing and the lessons we can learn from the current crisis.

Faulconer and Schaaf described the challenge of setting budget priorities and adapting as the pandemic—and its economic impact—evolves. Stressing the heightened importance of government workers and services during this crisis, Schaaf said that Oakland has been “looking at a way to avoid layoffs and avoid a reduction in services that would be felt particularly by our most vulnerable.”

Faulconer noted that city budgets everywhere have been affected by precipitous revenue drops that happened “almost overnight.” Because San Diego’s economy relies heavily on tourism and conventions, he said, it has been difficult “to have no conventions in San Diego at all—zero— from March, and unlikely any for the rest of the year.” He estimated that “from a dollars and cents standpoint . . . we’re going to take a hit of about $300 million.”

Schaaf said that it was painful not only to cut $122 million from the city budget but also to suspend some of the policies that helped improve Oakland’s financial situation over the past several years. “We are all holding our breath and hoping that this economy recovers,” she added.

Indeed, the economic uncertainty created by the pandemic is a huge challenge. As Faulconer put it, “How do I make some of these tough decisions now, not knowing if or when the economy is coming back?” For Faulconer, shifting state guidelines are also challenging. “One of the things that I think so many Californians are struggling with is ‘open, closed, open, closed,’” he said, adding that it is essential to move toward “a new normal that keeps people safe.”

Schaaf and Faulconer agreed that cities urgently need more federal assistance. Schaaf noted that while the CARES Act provided much-needed support, the funding could not be used to make up for local revenue shortfalls. Faulconer added that federal assistance “is not a partisan issue. This is a what-is-the-right-thing-that-we-should-be-doing issue.”

Both cities have taken creative steps to meet their challenges. “Everything’s creative now!” Faulconer said. In addition to providing rent relief and small business relief, San Diego has been using its convention centers to shelter homeless residents. This, he said, “has allowed us to provide a range of services under one roof.”

Schaaf is proud of Oakland’s partnerships with local businesses to supply vulnerable residents with meals and other services, as well as its efforts to convert emergency measures into long-term solutions. For example, the city has not only moved homeless residents into hotels during the pandemic but also secured an option to purchase those hotels and use them to provide permanent housing.

Faulconer, a Republican, and Schaaf, a Democrat, do not agree on everything—they expressed differing views on Proposition 15, for example. But both believe that mayors must be pragmatic problem-solvers, regardless of their party affiliations. As Schaaf put it, “We are accountable to our people; we live in our communities.”

As part of our Speaker Series on California’s Future, PPIC invites elected leaders from across the political spectrum to participate in public conversations. The purpose is to give Californians a better understanding of how our leaders are addressing the challenges facing our state.

PPIC is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization. PPIC does not take or support positions on any ballot measure or on any local, state, or federal legislation, nor does it support, endorse, or oppose any political parties or candidates for public office.

As Californians adapt to life under COVID-19 and a shifting economy, Senate President pro Tempore Toni Atkins spoke with PPIC President Mark Baldassare to assess where California stands in handling issues stemming from both crises.

Quick action around health and hospital infrastructure helped the state manage the pandemic, but Atkins warned of the need to keep pace with testing, tracing, and equipment. “It all starts with one simple thing: wearing a mask,” a precaution Atkins emphasized will help protect vulnerable people and support essential workers.

Legislation is also key to addressing job losses related to the pandemic. The federal stimulus, Atkins noted, did not do enough for small businesses. She is speaking with businesses to help identify problem areas as the legislature evaluates programs and loans. “We have got to focus the economic recovery on how we support businesses that are able to exist. Economic recovery needs to focus on small businesses and individuals.”

Along with COVID-19, which had outsize economic and health impacts on communities of color, the murder of George Floyd brought systemic racism to the forefront. Atkins pointed to an existing bill, AB392, which prescribes the circumstances in which police are authorized to use deadly force, saying that it had already started a conversation about how other states might follow California’s lead. A number of bills from the assembly and senate—such as ACA5, which addresses discrimination—may also signal a larger cultural shift.

A separate shift in education has forced the state to examine funding and resources as schools consider how to reopen. For teachers and students to safely return, Atkins stressed the need for adequate PPE and testing. In the meantime, the success of distance learning in both K–12 and higher education lies with broadband. Atkins highlighted broadband access in the Governor’s Economic Task Force and partnerships with telecom as efforts toward finding a solution.

Housing and homelessness provided another point of discussion. “When we started the year,” Baldassare said, “for the first time in the history of the Statewide Survey for PPIC, homelessness was named the issue Californians most wanted the legislature to work on.”

Atkins indicated that a priority during budget conversations was to maintain the amount of money going to local jurisdictions. “There’s no one-size-fits-all for how to address what’s working in one community versus another.” San Diego County was able to use its convention center to triage efforts beyond COVID-19 testing, including triaging for housing. Discussions then began about reevaluating buildings that might be rehabilitated to provide lower income housing.

The length of the pandemic has also placed a spotlight on health and safety in the upcoming general election, sparking debate over vote-by-mail. Atkins assured Baldassare that the legislature is focused on voter access and vote-by-mail, noting the recent passage of a bill extending the time for people to be able vote.

“We have to make sure there are safe sites in every county, enough that people are able to cast their vote and make it count.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has intensified California’s homelessness crisis while significantly straining the state budget. In an online event last Friday, Los Angeles County supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas and Sacramento mayor Darrell Steinberg talked with PPIC’s Mark Baldassare about what California can do to address homelessness during this unprecedented time.

As the co-chairs of Governor Newsom’s task force on homelessness—officially known as the Governor’s Council of Regional Homeless Advisors—Ridley-Thomas and Steinberg had a wealth of knowledge to share about the problem and solutions.

For Ridley-Thomas, California’s most urgent obligation is to its most vulnerable homeless residents—those who are 65 and older and have health issues. The state must also address the racial disproportionality of homelessness. As Steinberg noted, “6.5% of Californians identify as African American, but 40% of the homeless population is African American.” Race, said Ridley-Thomas, “has been the struggle of America since its founding,” so it is not surprising that “this disproportionality is fundamentally driven by racism.”

Steinberg drew a line from Civil Rights-era reforms and the urgent need to address homelessness. “It is no longer enough to say you’re free from outright discrimination when you seek to be housed.” Indeed, “Homelessness ought to be unacceptable in terms of law, not just as a matter of moral outrage.”

A shift toward this paradigm may be under way. When Baldassare asked about a federal injunction requiring Los Angeles to relocate homeless individuals living near freeways, Ridley-Thomas explained: “We were sued by individuals who were just fed up with the lack of progress,” and the lawsuit has compelled the city and county to “step up to the plate in a nonnegotiable way.”

Steinberg highlighted Assembly Bill 3269, which draws from recommendations generated by the Governor’s Council. The bill would mandate a 90% reduction in homelessness in every city and county by 2028. If it becomes law, AB 3269 could hold counties and cities accountable and motivate them to consolidate resources and work collaboratively. Right now, he said, “there’s a lot of inefficiency and ineffectiveness along with a lot of great work.”

Both Steinberg and Ridley Thomas pointed to Project Roomkey, which has placed thousands of homeless Californians in hotel rooms during the pandemic, as a step in the right direction. “What Project Roomkey has demonstrated is that if we put our mind to it, if we work across jurisdictional lines,” Steinberg said. The big challenges now are to find long-term housing for those people and to prevent renters who lost jobs during the pandemic from being evicted because they cannot pay back rent. These challenges underline the need for a “revolution in this state around innovative housing products,” Steinberg said.

While the challenges are significant, Ridley-Thomas is optimistic. Citing the allocation of resources to address homelessness in Governor Newsom’s first two budgets, he said, “We’re already making progress of consequence. And some of us are just determined not to turn back.”

Last Friday, Los Angeles County released homeless counts for 2020, showing numbers jumped 13% from January 2019 to January 2020. This spike occurred even before the pandemic-induced shutdown devastated the finances of many Californians. The statistics for California have been sobering for years. According to HUD point in time counts, the homeless population rose by 16% from 2018 to 2019, and the state is home to about half of the nation’s unsheltered homeless.

CalFresh, the state’s largest means-tested food assistance program, is one of few safety net supports accessible to adults without children who are experiencing homelessness. And because CalFresh benefits typically can be used only to buy groceries or seeds for planting, several counties, including Los Angeles, San Diego and Orange, have obtained the authority to enable elderly, disabled and homeless recipients to buy meals in certain restaurants.

In data from 2016–2018, on average about 340,000 CalFresh beneficiaries, or 8.4%, were homeless at some point during the year. Younger adults, age 18–49, make up a solid majority at about 60% of the CalFresh homeless, while children comprise 14% and adults 50 and older make up about a quarter. Strikingly, about 39% of CalFresh recipients in families containing only adults ages 18–49 are homeless, while 3% of recipients in families with children are homeless.

Most homeless CalFresh beneficiaries are eligible for the maximum CalFresh benefit, averaging about $175 per family member per month. But most younger adults have no other support. That is, less than 1 in 4 younger adults without children have current income from other parts of the social safety net—primarily General Assistance or social security—while 29% of older adults have other safety net income.

Nearly two-thirds of homeless CalFresh families with children have access to other parts of the social safety net. For example, 59% have access to CalWORKs. Across all family types, 14% have income from earnings in the current month—although other research shows that higher shares have earnings in earlier months.

Figure - Homeless CalFresh Recipients Rely Substantially on Their CalFresh Benefit

Policymakers and stakeholders have long been working to improve access to CalFresh so that more Californians have the ability to afford food. For example, a year ago California expanded the CalFresh program to include Supplemental Security Income (SSI/SSP) recipients.

During this recession, federal actions have been key because the federal government underwrites most CalFresh benefits. The pandemic-related FFRCA and CARES Acts included several provisions related to food assistance, including postponing strict work requirements to qualify for benefits that likely helped a number of homeless CalFresh adults. The House-passed HEROES Act proposes extending many temporary provisions and would temporarily increase CalFresh benefits. If enacted, these provisions would help 4.5 million Californians now accessing CalFresh, including many of those experiencing homelessness.

Today is Census Day, the day to count everyone living in the country in 2020. It’s not the deadline for responses—you have until August 14 to complete your census form—just the “anchor day” for counting those living in your household. We talked to California Secretary of State Alex Padilla about the challenges the COVID-19 pandemic brings to counting Californians—and for holding elections in November.

Photo - Alex PadillaPPIC: What challenges does the pandemic bring to conducting the census?

ALEX PADILLA: Ensuring a fair and accurate count is tough under normal circumstances, and it’s made more challenging by this global health pandemic. A lot of the state and local strategies for engaging the public on the census have had to be modified or replaced with ones that are more effective when people are staying at home. The good news is, this is the first time it’s been possible to do the census online, as well as by phone or paper. We’re seeing people get more creative at staying in touch while keeping their distance, whether through video chats with their coworkers or using teleconferencing to stay in touch with family and friends. We can also use these methods to remind everyone to do the census.

It’s really important to remember that participation in the census is how we ensure our communities receive their fair share of federal dollars for critical needs such as public health, education, public safety, housing, and infrastructure. This message is really striking a chord right now.

PPIC: As they shelter in place, what can Californians do to help ensure an accurate census count?

AP: Every Californian should participate in the census, but also remind people they’re in touch with to do so. Assuring a complete and fair count depends on everyone doing the census. It’s not just a count of adults or voters or citizens; it’s for everybody living here.

California has an especially high number of hard-to-count populations—for example, communities of color, young people, and immigrant families and communities. More than 70% of Californians fit into a hard-to-count category. It already takes extra effort to ensure participation by these groups. The pandemic is not making the job any easier—at a time when the job is more important than ever for ensuring the state gets its share of federal funding for critical needs over the next decade.

Based on the prior census 10 years ago, California’s most undercounted population were kids under five years old. My youngest just turned five, and especially now with all the kids at home, it’s hard to imagine forgetting to include him as he’s the loudest member of our household! Today, kids who weren’t counted in 2010 are now teens who’ve been in school for years, but their schools haven’t been getting their full share of federal education dollars. It’s a very tangible way to think about it, and it shows the importance of the census for our quality of life.

There are many options for participating in the census. Go online or call in today. Once you’ve submitted your information, help us by spreading the word with neighbors you’re checking in on and friends and family.

PPIC: Talk about the administration of the upcoming election.

AP: To put it in context, we should recognize that throughout the nation’s history, Americans have gone to the polls—in times of war, during the Great Depression, and even during the deadly 1918 flu pandemic. So it’s not a matter of if or when we’ll hold the election. We have a date: it’s Tuesday, November 3. It’s a matter of how we hold the election in a way that is accessible, secure, and healthy for everyone—voters, elections personnel, poll workers. Many things California has championed to get more people voting really make a lot of sense in an era of public distancing. You can register to vote online. Voting by mail and in-person early voting are good ways to avoid crowds. We’re diligently working on expanding those opportunities.

The COVID-19 crisis has upended the carefully laid plans for the 2020 Census in ways that might have disproportionate effects on California’s count. The Census Bureau is making important adjustments, but California needs to be particularly vigilant about the potential consequences.

The Bureau began its self-response period on March 12, when it started mailing out invitations to participate in the census to virtually every household in the country. Self-response remains the safest and simplest way to gather census data because, unlike in-person interviews, it does not raise the risk of coronavirus exposure.

The virus has altered almost every other effort the Bureau had planned. The Bureau always does extensive follow-up with households that fail to self-respond. More people are likely to need follow-up in California than in the average state, so problems with that process will be felt more acutely here. Follow-up is generally in person, which raises risks that didn’t exist just a few weeks ago; at least one census worker has even tested positive for the virus. To accommodate some of these challenges, the Bureau has delayed hiring and pushed back both the start of the follow-up (from May 13 to May 28) and the cutoff date for completed self-response forms (from July 31 to August 14).

The Bureau’s plans for counting those in less conventional living arrangements have been upended as well. The original plan for group quarters such as college dorms and senior living facilities was to send out a census worker to collect information for the entire facility from a contact person. College students are supposed to be counted as if at school, but many have been sent away from their campuses. And senior facilities are protecting their highly vulnerable residents by strictly limiting access. The Bureau is exploring alternative approaches.

People who are homeless, particularly those living on the street or in cars, are especially difficult to count. Estimates suggest that homelessness is a bigger and faster-growing problem in California than in almost any other state. The Bureau had planned to count homeless people wherever they happened to be from March 30 to April 1. But the homeless population is especially vulnerable to the virus, and sending census workers out to count in person would put the workers and their communities at risk. The Bureau has delayed this effort by a month to lower the risk of contagion.

Finally, the Bureau does a wide range of communications work just to get the message out that the census is happening and is important. The Bureau’s carefully developed media campaign is likely to be overwhelmed by news about the pandemic. Moreover, a significant amount of outreach was to be conducted in physical spaces by trusted messengers in each community. All of that will need to be rethought. Not only are large gatherings generally banned, but most community spaces are closed.

Though there is some scheduling flexibility, a hard deadline looms. By law, the Bureau must submit total state populations to the president by December 31 so that congressional representation can be adjusted to reflect changes in population over the previous 10 years. This is the most basic constitutional function of the census. Changing that deadline would require congressional approval and could complicate the process of redrawing the lines of representational districts.

These challenges are significant, but a strong performance during the self-response period will mitigate them. PPIC will be monitoring and providing key analysis of the self-response process to help ensure that the state is in the best possible position before the follow-up period begins.

To take a closer look at access to care, PPIC has created an interactive, California Critical Care during COVID-19.

To reduce community spread of COVID-19, California has instituted statewide guidance to shelter in place until further notice, and to practice social distancing when leaving home for approved activities such as grocery shopping or exercise. Because COVID-19 is novel, no vaccine is available and no one has preexisting immunity. However, individuals are not equally at risk, and there are several known sources of vulnerability.

There are Californians at elevated risk of exposure to the coronavirus. For some, this risk is due to the nature of their work, as is the case for physicians, nurses, and other front-line medical staff. For others, such as California’s approximately 115,000 prisoners and 150,000 homeless individuals, living conditions pose serious challenges to social distancing. And being over 60 or having an underlying health condition makes over one-third of California’s adults especially vulnerable to serious or fatal complications—this estimate does not include undiagnosed medical conditions, which puts the actual figure higher.

Californians in the state’s 21 rural counties may have lower exposure to the coronavirus because of the relative ease of social distancing. These individuals, who make up over 837,000 residents, may face significant challenges if they do contract the coronavirus. California’s rural adults are more likely to smoke than urban ones (16.8% versus 11.0%) (California Health Interview Survey 2018), and smoking is suspected to put coronavirus patients at higher risk of complications because it is known to damage lung health.

figure - Urban and Rural Californians’ Smoking Habits

Rural residents often have to travel farther to access critical care resources. This is especially concerning for the large numbers of elderly Californians who are low income, geographically isolated, or living alone in the state’s rural areas (California Department of Aging 2019).

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