Only one in three eligible voters cast a ballot in the 2014 general election to elect all the statewide offices, congressional representatives and approve initiatives, a record low. But, for two of California's fastest growing groups, the numbers are even more troubling.
"Everyone was quite shocked about that and, of course, very concerned, but we wanted to know with that low of a turnout, what groups that vote even lower -- what did they do in this record low context, or how low was their turnout," said Dr. Mindy Romero, founding director of the California Civic Engagement Project (CCEP) at UC Davis.
In this month's Policy Brief, the CCEP found that, as low as the turnout was for the general population, the turnout from Latino and Asian-Americans was even lower.
The percent of registered Latinos who voted was 27.5 percent (down 18 percent from 2010), while for Asian-Americans the number was 36.3 percent (down 12 percent 2010). The voter turnout for all registered Californians was 41.7 percent (down 17 percent from 2010).
These numbers are a problem because it shows just 17 percent of eligible Latinos and 18 percent of eligible Asian-Americans cast their ballots -- less than one in five people eligible to vote did so.Predicted population trends will result in more eligible Latino and Asian-American voters, but if the turnout percentages remain at these low levels, they will remain under-represented in the political process.
In the next 25 years, it is predicted that the state's population will grow by 21.4 percent, with the Latino and Asian-American populations growing by 41.5 percent and 33.8 percent, respectively. By the 2016 general election, California is expected to have a minority-majority electorate, with non-Latino whites making up a little less than half of the state's eligible voters.
Romero pointed out that Latinos and Asian-Americans are two groups that are predisposed to low voter turnout.
"You've got demographic issues, issues specific to this election, lack of education and outreach to these communities," said Romero. "And then you have these big issues that are always there, when groups are under-represented -- there's a lack of familiarity to the electoral process. So they get disproportionally impacted by institutional barriers."
Those institutional barriers include voter registration requirements, language barriers, lack of voter education, and access to additional information. Shelly Chen, the voter engagement coordinator at Asian-Americans Advancing Justice, pointed out how similar barriers keep many Asian-Americans from voting.
"There's the misconception that Asian-Americans don't go out and vote because the community's apathetic or they don't care, but what we believe is that our communities are facing a lot of barriers to the voting process," said Chen.
On top of that, Latinos and Asian-Americans (along with the general population) are increasingly registering as No Party Preference, or NPP. And because most voter education is driven by the campaigns and the political parties, those who are NPP do not receive as much voter education and are not targeted with GOTV efforts, making them less likely to actually vote.
How can Latinos and Asian-Americans be encouraged to vote?
Dr. Raphael Sonenshein, executive director for the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at CSU Los Angeles, says that Latinos want to see action in their elected officials.
"One of the very important things often pointed out is that Latino voters are getting tired of people saying, ‘I'm not as bad for you as the other people are,'" said Sonenshein. "They'd actually, like most voters, want to hear what you're going to do for them to improve their lives and situation, what you're going to fight for and how you're going to get it done."Sonsenshein pointed out that Latino participation can be high when there are issues or candidates important to their community, such as immigration, but that's not the only issue important to them.
"Some people say they're not one-issue voters, but if you're not right on that issue, you may not get listened to on the other issues," said Sonsenshein. "It's more of a threshold issue, but clearly Latino voters are extremely interested in issues of economic mobility, education, opportunity, but specifically, it's difficult to get at that discussion if you're perceived as hostile to immigrants."
One of the ways Advancing Justice is encouraging Asian-Americans to vote is to increase education through its "Your Vote Matters" campaign, which includes a multi-lingual phone bank in 17 Asian/Pacific Islander languages.
"A lot of folks are limited English speaking, may not be familiar with the process, but when they hear someone on the phone who speaks their language or is able to engage them on the phone in a really competent way, the personal connection really makes a big difference," said Chen.
Romero agrees that personal engagement is a good way to increase voter participation.
"It has to be a deep connection, has to be ‘Let me know you how I'm going to represent your interests,' ‘Let me show you why this matters,' ‘Let me show you why this impacts your community,' said Romero.
"A door hanger, a phone call typically isn't going to work. The sad thing is that the candidates think it works, so when they don't get a response from the Latino voter, the Asian-American voter, or the community that they're attempting that with, then they think, ‘Well, nothing works,' and they don't come back at all."
"If you use the old models and you don't reach out to them, then you miss all those new eligible Latinos and Asian-Americans that are going to be coming in, then you're just going to end up having very low turnout across the board, which is bad for democracy," said Romero.
But what happens if Latinos and Asian-Americans increased their voter participation?
"These communities are actually going to be reaching the tipping points where they really are going to affect the elections, then that can be consequential, not just for the candidate and the issue, but more consequential for the communities themselves," said Romero. "Because they understand that they have an impact, how empowering is that?"
CA Fwd and the Independent Voter Project will be co-hosting an event on August 19 in Sacramento regarding the future of election reform, voting rights, and California's nonpartisan primary. It's free and open to the public. Featured guest speakers include Secretary of State Alex Padilla and State Senator Steve Glazer. To get more info and attend, head to the RSVP page for the California Nonpartisan Primary Summit.
Editor's note: This article, written by Nadine Ono, originally published on CA Fwd's website on July 28, 2015, and has been modified slightly for publication on IVN. To learn more about CA Fwd, visit the organization's website or follow the group on Facebook or Twitter.