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Report · February 2016

Putting California’s Voter Turnout in Context

Eric McGhee and Daniel Krimm


Turnout in California’s recent elections has hit record lows, prompting concern about the implications for the state’s democracy and encouraging many to think of ways the lack of participation might be turned around. To understand and address this challenge requires putting it in broader context. This short report identifies California’s turnout trends over time; separates them into presidential, midterm, and primary elections; examines the separate voting steps of registration and turnout; and places all of these numbers into comparative context with other states.

When seen in isolation, California has a turnout problem. Californians are registering at the same rates as before, but they are not following through and casting a ballot as often. This problem is mostly limited to midterm elections (both primary and fall general), though there is some evidence of a decline in presidential primaries as well. Fall presidential elections continue to draw voters as well today as they did 35 years ago. Thus, if we are concerned about turnout in California, midterm elections ought to be an area of special focus.

But compared to other states, California also has a registration problem. The registration rate has stayed flat in California but climbed elsewhere. California’s recent adoption of automated registration could radically reduce the administrative burden of registering to vote, but what remains will be the same motivational and logistical barriers that impede turnout among the registered.

To address this turnout issue, we briefly examine two possible policy changes discussed recently: 1) the “Colorado model” of voting, and 2) more robust and comprehensive civics education in school. Both demonstrate some promise of increasing turnout, but neither will be a silver bullet. The way forward will increasingly consist of efforts to mobilize already registered voters and get them to the polls.


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