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Press Release · September 9, 2020

California’s Pre-Coronavirus Voting Reforms Suggest Vote-By-Mail Could Increase Turnout, though Some Groups Likely Need Special Outreach


SAN FRANCISCO, September 9, 2020—As California gears up for a November election that is likely to lean heavily on voting by mail, the state’s prior experience shows that alternatives to in-person voting can boost turnout overall, but it also highlights groups who may need targeted outreach. These groups include foreign-language registrants, renters, new voters, younger voters, and Latinos and Asian Americans. Across parties, neither Democratic nor Republican turnout has seen an outsize increase due to expanded vote-by-mail. These are among the key findings of a report released today by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC).

“This November, mail-in ballots and other alternatives to in-person voting on Election Day will be key to California holding an election that is not only fair, but is safe for voters and election workers,” said Eric McGhee, senior fellow at PPIC and one of the report’s authors. “Our research points to the prospect of boosting turnout through increased vote-by-mail but also shows the importance of strategic outreach to groups that may have a hard time with the transition.”

PPIC’s analysis is based on voting behavior under the Voter’s Choice Act (VCA), a state law passed in 2016. The VCA has been adopted by 15 counties and significantly increases mail voting, reduces and consolidates in-person voting options, and mandates certain early-voting alternatives. To gauge the impact of the VCA, the report examines voter behavior in these 15 counties—both before and after implementation of the VCA—compared to voting behavior in California’s other 43 counties. One reform under the VCA was sending mail-in ballots to all registered voters in the county, something California will do statewide for the November election in response to concerns about voter safety during the pandemic.

The report finds:

  • Turnout is generally higher under the Voter’s Choice Act, especially for registrants who have indicated they prefer voting in person. Across the 15 counties implementing the VCA, turnout increased by 4 percentage points on average among those preferring to vote in person and by 1 percentage point among those preferring to vote by mail.
  • While some groups consistently had higher turnout after VCA implementation, certain groups of voters did not: foreign-language registrants, renters, new voters, younger voters, and Latino and Asian American registrants. Across the two elections studied in this report—the 2018 primary and the 2020 primary—certain groups appeared to face some difficulty with the transition to the VCA model and its increased use of mail voting. Specifically, foreign-language registrants who prefer voting in person and renters who prefer to vote by mail have seen small turnout increases or even declines under the VCA. New voters and younger voters saw declines in turnout in the 2020 primary (but not the 2018 primary), and for Latino and Asian American voters, mail voting fell in the 2018 primary (but not the 2020 primary). These findings suggest that all of these groups should be considered priority populations for extra outreach in order to ensure there is no decline in their turnout this November.
  • By-mail voting does not appear to result in any partisan advantage. There is no evidence from Voter’s Choice Act implementation that heavy use of vote-by-mail benefits either Democrats or Republicans.
  • By-mail voting was steady in the weeks prior to the election, while in-person options were largely concentrated close to Election Day—though this could shift in November 2020. Based on detailed data on the 2018 primary and 2020 primary from two counties that have implemented the VCA—Orange and Sacramento—PPIC’s analysis shows that voters who mail in their ballots appear to do so at a steady rate during the weeks prior to Election Day. Voters using other options—dropping off the ballot at a drop box or a vote center—tend to vote on Election Day or in the last few days before. However, certain factors could cause this tendency to shift this November. For example, voters may drop off their ballots earlier than they otherwise might have to avoid crowds expected around Election Day, or they may mail ballots earlier due to concerns about possible delays through the U.S. Postal Service.
  • Not all groups vote the same way. Seniors in Orange and Sacramento Counties have been more likely to vote by mail, while young people have been more likely to vote in person. Foreign-language voters are more likely than English-language voters to mail in their ballots. There are few differences by race and ethnicity.

The report offers a number of recommendations for promoting turnout—without sacrificing health and safety—for the upcoming election. Election administrators, advocacy organizations, and other stakeholders could target extra outreach to groups at risk of lower turnout overall or who might be less likely to mail in their ballots. Research suggests that trusted messengers, with credibility among a given population, are an effective means of this outreach. To minimize the prospect that in-person voting spikes around Election Day—posing potential health risks and possibly burdening polling places—election administrators might also encourage early voting for those who do not want to mail in their ballots.

“Due to voting reforms well underway prior to the pandemic, California is better prepared than other states for the transition to an expanded use of mail voting this November,” said McGhee. “Still, certain groups will likely find it more challenging to make this transition. Special outreach and engagement with these voters will be critical to ensuring a safe and fair election.”

About PPIC

The Public Policy Institute of California is dedicated to informing and improving public policy in California through independent, objective, nonpartisan research. We are a public charity. We do not take or support positions on any ballot measure or on any local, state, or federal legislation, nor do we endorse, support, or oppose any political parties or candidates for public office. Research publications reflect the views of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of our funders or of the staff, officers, advisory councils, or board of directors of the Public Policy Institute of California.