The balance of power in California changed little in the 2022 election. The Democrats gained two seats in the state assembly and one in the state senate, lost two in the US House, and kept control of all statewide partisan offices. But while the partisan balance was static, the state’s electorate did change—and in ways that raise questions as we look to the 2024 elections.
Because 2022 was a midterm election without a presidential contest, turnout fell a lot: from 81% of registered voters in the 2020 presidential election to 51% in 2022. In fact, as a share of registrants, turnout was below average. (Because California has recently added a lot of registered voters, turnout was higher than average when calculated as a share of voting-eligible residents.)
The composition of voters also shifted. Turnout fell across the board, but it fell far more among voters of color. For Latinos, the decline was especially sharp, with turnout falling 38 percentage points compared to 34 points for Asian Americans and 29 points for African Americans. Turnout among white voters declined 21 points. Larger turnout gaps for Asian Americans and Latinos have been a feature of past midterms, but the persistence of the pattern here is important.
In June 2022, the US Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health Organization ended constitutional protections for abortion. While the legality of abortion was never seriously in doubt in California, the legislature put a measure on the ballot to explicitly protect abortion in the state’s constitution anyway. Analysts wondered if the issue would motivate more women, especially younger women of child-bearing ages, to head to the polls.
As it happened, California’s 2022 turnout fell more for women (-30pp) than for men (-27pp), with a slightly larger gender difference at younger ages (18–44: -39pp women; -35pp men). Turnout also fell more for Democrats (-30pp) than for Republicans (-24pp). And Republicans were the only partisan group where the decline for men was as large as the decline for women (-24pp each).
These results raise questions about the 2024 presidential election. The electorate at that point might include more voters of color, both because it will be a presidential election and because the state’s registered population has become more diverse over time. But new registrants of color have not always voted, even in presidential elections, so the magnitude of these changes remains an open question.
Likewise, while abortion seemed to mobilize Democrats and women in some parts of the country, that effect may not extend to California. Californians support access to abortion, but that access is not currently under threat and so may not drive voting decisions here.
One thing is certain: turnout is different in presidential elections. Of all the variable forces that drive decisions to vote, the presence or absence of a presidential contest is by far the strongest. We cannot perfectly predict who will vote in 2024, but we should expect changes to come.