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Press Release · March 29, 2016

California’s Exclusive Electorate: Half of Adults Make Choices for All

Economic Divide Between Likely Voters, Nonvoters Has Big Consequences

SAN FRANCISCO, March 29, 2016— Only half of California adults can be expected to vote in this year’s presidential election, and they are likely to be very different from those who do not vote—in their demographic and economic backgrounds and in their political attitudes. These are among the key findings of a report released today by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC).

Likely voters in California tend to be older, white, college-educated, affluent, and homeowners, according to the report, based on analyses of state data and results from the 2015 PPIC Statewide Survey. Likely voters also tend to identify themselves as “haves”—rather than “have nots”—when asked to choose between these two economic categories. Nonvoters tend to be younger, Latino, renters, less affluent, less likely to be college-educated than likely voters—and they generally identify with the have nots.

The economic differences between voters and nonvoters reflect the growing economic divide that has surfaced as one of the most important policy issues this election year. Voters and nonvoters vary noticeably in their attitudes toward the role of government and government spending, as well as their views of elected officials—all of which come into play in an election year.

The disparity between Californians who participate in elections and those who don’t is particularly important in a state that calls on its voters not only to elect representatives but also to make major policy decisions through ballot initiatives.

“The divide between voters and nonvoters appears to be deep, persistent, and difficult to bridge,” said the report’s author, Mark Baldassare, PPIC president and CEO. “It will have far-reaching consequences this fall, when issues as important as the minimum wage, school bonds, and the death penalty are likely to be on the ballot.”

The report shows that political participation has failed to keep pace with California’s population growth or its changing demographics. Since 2000, California’s total population has increased by about 16 percent and the percentage of adults of voting age has increased by 22 percent. Yet voter registration has increased by just 10 percent. Today, 82 percent—24.6 million—of California’s adults are eligible to vote, but just 57 percent are registered to do so. In 2000, 63 percent were registered.

California has been a “majority minority” state—one in which no ethnic or racial group constitutes the majority—for more than 15 years. But the state’s elections have yet to make this demographic transition. Today, California’s adult population is 42 percent white and 36 percent Latino, while the remaining 23 percent are Asian (14%), black (6%), and other (3%). Yet 60 percent of California likely voters are white, only 18 percent are Latino, and the balance are Asian, black, and other. While 34 percent of adults are foreign born, 83 percent of Californians who frequently vote are US born.

Here are some key distinctions between likely voters and nonvoters:

  • Socioeconomic: Frequent voters are likely to be 45 or older (68%), homeowners (68%), have attended college (40%) or graduated (42%), and have annual household incomes of $60,000 or more (55%). When asked to choose, likely voters tend to identify with the haves (50%) rather than the have nots (34%). Most nonvoters are younger than 45 (67%) and renters (66%), while just 17 percent are college graduates and 20 percent earn $60,000 or more. They are more likely to identify with the have nots (53%) than the haves (31%).
  • Views on the role of government: Likely voters are divided on whether the government should do more to reduce the gap between the rich and poor, with a slim majority in favor of the government doing more (51% to 44%). A much larger 70 percent of nonvoters say the government should do more. When Californians are asked if they have a generally favorable or unfavorable view of the federal Affordable Care Act, likely voters are divided (49% favorable to 46% unfavorable). Nonvoters are much more likely to view the law favorably (56% to 35%).
  • Spending preferences: The differing views of voters and nonvoters about where to allocate a projected state budget surplus over the next few years clearly reflect their economic differences. Likely voters are strongly in favor of paying down the debt rather than restoring funds to social services (59% to 38%). Nonvoters lean toward restoring funds to social services (50% to 44%).
  • Ballot choices: The economic divide between the haves and have nots is clearly reflected in views on issues likely to appear on the November ballot. Just under half of likely voters (49%) say that increasing the state’s minimum wage is an issue that is very important to them, while a solid majority of nonvoters (69%) say it is very important to them. The issue of K–12 school funding provides another example. Nonvoters are more likely than frequent voters to have children living at home and to benefit directly from increased school funding. They are also more likely to say that the issue of state bonds for schools is very important to them (68% to 55%).
  • Elected officials’ ratings: Likely voters tend to hold more negative views about elected officials than nonvoters do.

The report finds that new laws aimed at increasing election participation are unlikely to produce big increases in voting. What more can be done to diversify the electorate? Civic engagement is critical, as is building confidence in elections and trust in government. Public and private efforts, including targeted drives to increase civics education, voter registration, and voting in underrepresented communities could help. And broader endeavors to increase economic opportunity—such as policies that result in high-paying jobs, affordable housing, and higher college graduation rates—could also lead to a larger, more diverse voting population. Finally, efforts are also needed to encourage more noncitizens to become citizens so that they can join the voter rolls.

“In a state that increasingly relies on the ballot box to make major policy decisions, a more engaged and representative electorate would be a source of long-term stability in California,” Baldassare said.

The report, titled California’s Exclusive Electorate: Who Votes and Why it Matters, was produced with research support from Dean Bonner, associate director of the PPIC Statewide Survey, and research associates David Kordus and Lunna Lopes. It is supported with funding from The James Irvine Foundation.


PPIC is dedicated to informing and improving public policy in California through independent, objective, nonpartisan research on major economic, social, and political issues. The institute was established in 1994 with an endowment from William R. Hewlett. PPIC does not take or support positions on any ballot measure or on any local, state, or federal legislation, nor does it endorse, support, or oppose any political parties or candidates for public office.