PPIC research fellow Eric McGhee was invited to testify about voter turnout in California last week before a joint hearing of the Senate Committee on Elections and Constitutional Amendments and Assembly Committee on Elections and Redistricting. Here are his prepared remarks.
California’s voter turnout in 2014 hit record lows in both the primary and the general elections. I’d like to put that turnout in broader context, and give some thoughts on potential solutions. In doing so, I’m going to briefly answer four questions:
- Who votes, and who doesn’t?
- What does California’s turnout look like over time and compared to the rest of the country?
- What are some of the reforms that have been tried in the past, and how well have they worked?
- What are the other possible reforms out there that have yet to be tried in California?
Who votes and who doesn’t?
California’s electorate does not look like the state as a whole. Compared to non-voters, California’s voters are older, whiter, more educated, less likely to have recently moved, more likely to be homeowners, and more partisan. They are also wealthier, though most of the difference in income between voters and non-voters is a function of the more powerful effects of other factors such as age and education. And, PPIC research by Mark Baldassare has shown that non-voters have different opinions on important policy issues. In particular, they tend to be more supportive of a larger role for government.
These differences are very similar to what one would find in the rest of the country, but California’s profile on all of these dimensions is at one extreme. The state is relatively young, relatively mobile, with an especially large non-white population.
Beyond all these demographic and attitudinal issues looms citizenship. Citizenship is a much more important issue in California than in other states, given the large non-citizen population we have here. It particularly affects the Latino and Asian American communities. That said, it is becoming a less important issue over time, since virtually all the population growth in these communities is now among native-born citizens.
What does California’s turnout look like over time and compared to the rest of the country?
California’s turnout has dropped between 10 and 20 points in the last 30 years. It’s important to break this problem into two separate parts: the registration rate among those who are eligible to vote, and turnout among the registered population. Identifying which is the bigger problem will help us know which problem to target first.
Compared to other states, California’s registration rate has been slipping. By contrast, turnout among the registered has been consistently higher than in other states, and has been holding up better over time. These numbers are not yet available for 2014, and California’s turnout will likely be low relative to other states that year. But overall, California lags other states in registration, not turnout.
That’s not to say that turnout among the registered is without problems. It has been declining in absolute terms, at least outside of fall presidential elections. But if we are going to tackle one problem in particular, registration may be a good place to start. In addition to being a problem more specific to California, it may be more amenable to broad reform. It amounts to little more than an administrative hurdle, and as detailed below, it is certainly the easiest one to take permanently off the table through more sophisticated data management.
What are some of the reforms that have been tried in the past, and how well have they worked?
In a report last year, I explored the effect on turnout and registration of two reforms to the registration process that California recently adopted to make the process easier. The first was online registration, which allows voters to conduct the entire registration process online without ever needing to mail in a paper form. The second is conditional registration, which allows voters to register and vote simultaneously in a single trip to the county registrar, and to do so after the official close of registration, up to and including Election Day. Online registration was used for the first time in the middle of the 2012 campaign season, so my analysis was about evaluating a reform that had already been implemented. Conditional registration, on the other hand, will probably not be implemented until 2017, so my analysis was about examining the effect of similar reforms in other states.
Online registration was wildly popular, accounting for over half the new registrants in the last month of the 2012 fall registration period. However, the results of the analysis of online registration suggested that the vast majority of these people likely would have registered to vote anyway. They probably got excited by the new system and registered earlier than they might have, but that didn’t significantly increase the total volume of registrations.
Conditional registration (often called “same day” or “Election Day” registration in other states) has been heavily used in the other states that have adopted it. There are often huge surges of use right before Election Day. As with online registration, however, almost all of these people would have registered anyway. The conditional registration system simply allowed them to register later. In terms of getting new voters to the polls, the policy has had more mixed results, with high-end estimates of an increase in turnout of about 4 percentage points.
The challenge for California is that even if all the users of conditional registration would have registered anyway, there will still be a lot of those people. That makes for a late surge in registrations that must be processed, and on a scale that other states have not faced. Elections are administered at the county level, and California has six of the 20 most populous counties in the country. Los Angeles County by itself is 40 percent larger than the largest state that has adopted a conditional registration system up to this point (Wisconsin). Thus, California will have to handle a significant portion of its conditional registrants through a small number of very large counties. The state needs to be prepared.
What are the other reforms that have yet to be tried?
Probably the biggest reform to registration that has not yet been tried in California is automatic registration. This is a system where voters who engage with government in some other capacity (usually by getting a drivers’ license at the DMV) and provide enough information to be registered are put on the voter rolls by default. They would then be given the option to remove themselves if they wanted but would otherwise remain registered.
Though automatic registration would be a big change, it is not quite as radical as it sounds. The state already tries to give residents the option to register at the DMV and other agencies (not always with perfect success), so automatic registration would just be a more insistent and systematic form of the same policy. Moreover, the drivers’ license and voter registration lists are on the verge of being linked already, thus easing many of the potential technical hurdles.
Would automatic registration solve California’s turnout problem? No, because low registration is about more than administrative hurdles. Many of the people who do not register are expressing a deeper disengagement from politics and public life. For example, North Dakota has no voter registration at all but falls far short of 100 percent turnout. Thus, automatic registration would need to be followed up with constant engagement to truly leverage the new system. What it would do is ensure that something closer to 100 percent of California citizens would be available for engagement without any further administrative steps along the way.
Automatic registration could also help the state deal with the surges of late registrants it will likely see under the conditional registration system. With voters added to the rolls throughout the year as they acquired or updated drivers’ licenses, there would be far fewer voters who would need to use the conditional registration system at the eleventh hour, making it more manageable for county registrars.
In the end, automatic registration is only one potential solution to voter turnout problems in California. Many others can and should be considered, and after all stakeholders have weighed in, an automatic registration itself may not prove to be the best fit for California. A bill proposing an automatic registration system has been introduced by Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, so there will be a real opportunity to have a robust debate on the issue. That alone will be a healthy step forward for California.