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With the release of California’s official Statement of the Vote all of the November election ballots have been counted. California voters made important decisions amid a pandemic and a recession in an election that will go down in history. These election choices stand out in this remarkable year:

  • Voter turnout. A record-breaking 22,047,448 Californians—87.87% of the 25,090,517 eligible adults—were registered to vote before the general election, according to California’s Secretary of State. The 17,785,151 voters who cast ballots is an all-time high for California elections and, at 80.67% of registered voters and 70.88% of eligible adults, reflects participation rates rarely seen in the past 100 years. This follows the record high for ballots cast in the March state primary. Notably, Governor Newsom directed each county’s elections officials to send vote-by-mail ballots for the November election to all registered voters; 73% of California likely voters said they favored this response to the coronavirus outbreak in the May PPIC survey. Many factors increased political engagement, but the key element was the level of enthusiasm in voting for president—which crossed party lines—that we noted in the October PPIC survey. Still, over 10 million California adults either could not vote, did not register to vote, or did not submit their ballots.
  • Top of the ticket. A big win for Democratic challenger Joe Biden over Republican incumbent Donald Trump was predicted in our October PPIC Survey and widely anticipated by both parties. Biden ended up with more supporters in California—an 11,110,250 vote total (63.5%)—than anyone who has ever run for president. Still, the 6,006,429 California votes for Trump (34.3%) outnumbered the total amassed in any of the 50 states—including Florida and Texas. The vote for Trump also exceeded the percent and number of Republicans registered to vote in California. Both the Republican and Democratic shares of the presidential vote grew from 2016, and minor party support shrank, while Trump’s vote grew by 1,522,619 votes. Trump had low approval ratings in California throughout his presidency, but his base remained loyal. The election map points to Trump majorities in the rural northern and inland areas, while exit polls indicate that Biden was heavily favored among African American, Asian American, and Latino voters.
  • Down-ballot races. Democrats continued to dominate federal and state legislative races while Republicans made some notable gains. Out of the 53 US House seats, Democrats won 42 and Republicans won 11. Republicans now hold four seats that flipped in the “blue wave” 2018 mid-term election. In the 80 state assembly races, 60 Democrats, 19 Republicans, and one no party preference candidate were elected. The Republicans gained one assembly seat. In the 20 state senate races, 17 Democrats and 3 Republicans won seats. Democrats gained two state senate seats, including one that they had lost in a 2018 recall election, to maintain the two-thirds supermajority needed to control the legislative process.
  • State propositions. California voters showed an independent streak and their policy preferences were somewhat at odds with state elected officials in their responses to state ballot measures. Voters rejected Proposition 15, a citizens’ initiative to raise commercial property taxes to fund schools and local governments that was endorsed by many of the state’s Democratic leaders. They also rejected Proposition 16, an initiative placed on the ballot by the state legislature that would have restored affirmative action programs in state government and other public institutions. But they passed Proposition 22, a citizens’ initiative that undid state employment legislation (AB5) and allows app-based transportation and delivery drivers to be contractors. They also passed Proposition 25, which was a referendum initiative that overturned a bail reform law recently passed by the legislature (SB10). Voters also approved Proposition 14, a state bond for stem cell research placed on the ballot as a citizen’s initiative, after rejecting Proposition 13 in March, a state bond for public schools and higher education facilities placed on the ballot by the state legislature.

As we close the books on the November election, the top issues on Californians’ minds in the October PPIC survey—the coronavirus outbreak, jobs and the economy, climate change and wildfires, housing affordability and homelessness, and the state budget—remain far from resolved. The December PPIC survey finds Californians in a gloomy mood about the future. The ability to reach consensus on policy solutions that offer a better future for Californians is the challenge of our times. How the state chooses to build on the high level of political engagement in 2020 will be important. The PPIC Statewide Survey will continue to provide a voice for Californians—including likely voters—as presidential leadership changes and the new Congress and California Legislature take up the people’s business in 2021.

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!

The coronavirus pandemic has created serious concerns about in-person voting across the country. Many jurisdictions have struggled to staff voting sites, and the flow of voters will need to be regulated to reduce transmission risk. These constraints could create voting backlogs on Election Day, increasing the risk of voters getting frustrated and giving up.

The March primary in Los Angeles County may offer a case study of voting backlogs affecting turnout: the county has been working to fix technical problems at its in-person voting sites that created backlogs and long lines.

The root of LA’s problems was a new electronic system at in-person voting sites that unexpectedly struggled to keep up with the volume of voting on Election Day. At the same time, the county implemented the Voter’s Choice Act (VCA), which involved replacing neighborhood polling places with a smaller number of large “vote centers” where any voter could cast a ballot. The VCA requires that all voters receive a vote-by-mail ballot, but LA received permission to postpone that part of the law for many Angelinos.

In general, the VCA has facilitated higher turnout. Turnout increased an average of 1.5% in the 14 counties (other than LA) that implemented the VCA between the primaries in 2016 and 2020, while it declined about 1% in the 43 counties that did not make the change.

A similar comparison is possible within LA County, because the part of the county that shares state legislative and congressional districts with Orange County did a “full-VCA” implementation—switching to vote centers and sending every voter a mail ballot. Turnout dropped 0.3% in the full-VCA portion and 4.0% in the rest of LA. At face value, this suggests that getting a ballot in the mail made a larger difference in LA, where in-person voting was especially challenging.

figure - Full VCA Implementation Had a Large Effect within LA County

The effect was even larger for voters registered as preferring to vote in person. In the rest of California (outside LA), these voters turned out 3.6% more in VCA counties; within LA, the same gap was 6.7%. The difference was not so much in the full-VCA portion of LA—where in-person voters had largely the same options as VCA voters anywhere—but in the rest of the county, where in-person voters did not get vote-by-mail ballots and ran into the problems with the new electronic system.

LA has been working to fix its voting problems, and the state has mandated that every voter receive a mail ballot for the fall election to reduce the risk of coronavirus transmission. So LA voters are unlikely to face the same challenges in November. But clear signs that LA’s problems led to lower turnout should serve as a warning for jurisdictions in California and elsewhere. Backlogs at in-person sites can lead to voter frustration, and some people will likely give up and go home. A smooth in-person process will be important to ensuring that every voter who wants to cast a ballot can do so.

As part of our Speaker Series on California’s Future, PPIC is bringing together thought leaders to give Californians a better understanding of the upcoming election.

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 views of our event speakers do not necessarily reflect the views of PPIC.

Just weeks before the highly consequential November election, Politico’s California Playbook reporter Carla Marinucci moderated a lively conversation about the state and national political landscape with four other top journalists: Perry Bacon Jr., senior political writer for FiveThirtyEight; Priya David Clemens, host of KQED Newsroom; Tamara Keith, White House correspondent for National Public Radio; and Jennifer Medina, national political reporter for the New York Times.

In his welcoming remarks, Mark Baldassare noted that “California’s likely voters are anxious about the troubling state of affairs in the nation and state, while partisans are worlds apart about the path to a brighter future.” Channeling Hunter S. Thompson, Priya David Clemens said that among California Democrats “there is fear and loathing—loathing for President Trump and his actions in office, and true fear that 2016 could repeat itself.”

Clemens noted that while Californians have contributed about $100 million to the Biden campaign, the Trump campaign has raised about $60 million in California, which suggests that “conservatives in the state are still super energized.”

“There’s a lot of PTSD about 2016,” Tamara Keith said, “but there are a lot of really big differences.” In 2016, President Trump was an unknown quantity, politically speaking, but now “there aren’t a lot of people who don’t have opinions about him.” Joe Biden—unlike Hillary Clinton—doesn’t generate strong feelings, either pro or con. “He doesn’t need to excite a lot of passion,” she added, “because the passion is so strong about President Trump.”

Jennifer Medina noted that even “basic health and science questions” are now viewed through a partisan lens. The political divide seems to have a stranglehold on the voting public, she said: “The news is constantly changing every few minutes, and the polls have been remarkably consistent.” But the most worrisome thing, for her, is “the stranglehold on what truth is, and what reality is.”

Hyperpartisanship makes it difficult to predict how any given issue or event might affect the November election—whether it’s Republican efforts to confirm a replacement for Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the presidential and vice presidential debates, or the impasse over a second COVID relief package.

Perry Bacon Jr. noted that for most voters, partisanship around racial identity is a driving force: “If you really want to see the electorate shift, have Donald Trump put on a Black Lives Matter tee-shirt and wear it for two days!” More seriously, he stressed the importance of polarized racial views among white voters: “74% of the voters will be non-Hispanic white voters,” he said, so “the difference between white people and other white people” will probably matter most.

What will happen after all the votes have been cast? COVID-19 has heightened the prominence of vote-by-mail ballots, and the president himself has been sowing doubts about the electoral process. Is the media prepared to cover a delayed result? As Keith put it, “If it’s close, it’s going to be a challenging month of misinformation flying wildly, and who the heck knows. But it may not be close.”

The COVID-19 pandemic continues to raise concerns about in-person voting and virus transmission as the November election approaches. Many states are encouraging vote-by-mail as a solution to protect poll workers and voters alike, and California has taken extraordinary measures in this direction. For the presidential election, the state will send every registered voter a mail-in ballot, as counties limit in-person options but offer more early voting and ballot drop boxes.

Eric McGhee, senior fellow at PPIC, presented findings from a report that examines California’s experience with the Voter’s Choice Act (VCA), a recent reform that shifted counties to alternative voting methods. Used in 15 counties—the first wave in 2018 and then 10 more in 2020—the reform covers a slight majority of registered voters in the state. Under the VCA, all voters receive a mail-in ballot, counties offer vote centers rather than local polling places, and early voting and drop boxes are available.

McGhee reasoned that the VCA offers an approximation of the pandemic voting model that voters will face in November, and his findings can offer context around what to expect. Gaining insight into who turns out, what methods they prefer, and when voters cast their ballots can help inform policy and outreach efforts.

Who votes under this model? “The basic answer is more people do,” McGhee said. “We see a bigger increase in turnout for in-person voters than by-mail voters, but we see some increase for both.” This pattern held across demographics. There was also no partisan impact—differences in turnout among Republicans and Democrats were small. However, a few groups did have trouble with the reform: voter turnout among foreign-language voters, young people, and renters sometimes declined.

Data from Orange and Sacramento Counties further revealed when and how residents were likely to vote. Voters who mailed ballots sent them steadily over the weeks leading into Election Day. Ballots dropped in a drop box were cast closer to Election Day, with about 60% cast on Election Day. Similarly, voters who dropped off ballots or voted in-person at a vote center did so near or on Election Day.

Report co-author Mindy Romero, founder and director of the Center for Inclusive Democracy at the University of Southern California, joined the discussion and stressed the value of using the data to plan targeted messaging and outreach to groups who had lower turnout. Findings from Romero’s separate report, Voter Messaging in the Time of COVID-19, break out similar voter data by race, disability, and regional differences.

Romero recommended Californians mail ballots at least a week before the election to account for potential delays with the US Postal Service and encouraged voters to register to track their ballots.

Is it worth it to switch to a new model that may have a greater risk of fraud? “There’s not a greater risk of fraud,” Romero said and outlined state protections in place.

“By contrast,” McGhee concluded, “COVID is real. The risk is still there.”

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.”

With the decennial census and a presidential election on his to-do list, Alex Padilla expected to have a busy year. “We were getting ready for a big 2020,” he said. But 2020 has been even more challenging than he anticipated. In March, both of these major efforts were complicated by the COVID-19 crisis, and the recent surge of protests and demonstrations across the country has had a personal and professional impact.

Padilla discussed these and other issues with PPIC president Mark Baldassare last Friday. When Baldassare asked how state and local leaders can respond to civil unrest over the police-involved deaths of George Floyd and others, Padilla offered an expansive view.

“We can have a very narrow, specific conversation about use-of-force reforms and culture change necessary in police departments around the country. Or we can have broad conversations about systemic discrimination,” he said. “As uncomfortable as it might be, I think one of the silver linings of the killing of George Floyd—because that’s what it was, in my opinion—is that it has brought all this to the surface in a way that I haven’t seen before.”

Padilla sees these conversations as an important step toward change. “I’m truly hoping that all levels of government—not just the federal, but state and local government across the country—will take this opportunity to make some bold steps and changes that are long overdue.”

For Padilla, another key step is to expand California’s voting population. “It’s not about demonstrating or protesting today versus political activity, including voter registration and voting in November. We have to do both.” Increasing voter turnout, he added, is not just about the numbers but about diversifying the electorate: “Lower-income communities, communities of color, young people, especially—those are the voices that we need to try to uplift.”

Now that the governor has expanded vote-by-mail to all California voters for the November election, Padilla’s office is working with counties to help them facilitate both vote by mail and safe in-person voting. “It’s not partisan. It’s about voting rights. It’s about public health,” he said.

In addition to administering “the most consequential election of our lifetime,” Padilla remains focused on an accurate census count. Given the impact of COVID-19 on outreach and follow-up, there has been talk of extending the census timeline. Padilla would prefer to complete the census on schedule. “A significant enough delay in the Census will cause delays in redistricting, and could impact our opportunity to vote in fair districts in 2022,” he said. California’s response rate so far is above the national average, but Padilla noted that “it’s still a far cry from where we were at this stage ten years ago. So we have a lot of work to do.”

Even during this challenging time, Padilla is optimistic about California’s future. “We can and we will make progress. And one of the ways is to make sure our voices are heard in November.”

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