IVN News

The Silent Majority: Why Aren’t More Californians Voting?

The governor recently signed a collection of election reform laws in California, including the “New Motor Voter” Act which automates voter registration through the Department of Motor Vehicles, and a measure that makes rejecting ballots for technical errors more difficult.

With a significant amount of focus aimed at breaking down the barriers associated with the voter experience, many are wondering about the next step in the process — getting people to the polls.

Why don’t more Californians vote? Some say it’s apathy, while others assert the system has flaws. Many theories abound on this topic, some informed by data while others are pure speculation. Yet, most agree that there is no single magic fix to this growing problem.

“A large segment of California is underrepresented at the polls,” said Mindy Romero, founding director of the California Civic Engagement Project at the University of California, Davis. “Electoral reforms must address the unique barriers groups like Latinos, Asian-Americans and our youth face in participating in our electoral process. If we don’t reduce the disparities in California’s turnout rates, then our democracy will only become more anemic.”

Electoral reforms must address the unique barriers groups like Latinos, Asian-Americans and our youth face in participating in our electoral process.
Mindy Romero, California Civic Engagement Project at UC-Davis
According to Romero’s research titled, “California’s Latino and Asian American Vote: Dramatic Underrepresentation in 2014 and Expected Impact in 2016,” only 17 percent of eligible Latinos and 18 percent of eligible Asian American voters went to the polls in the 2014 General Election. For many, this rings loud and clear: too many voices are going unheard in California.

Even more concerning than the overall low turnout in these groups, is the disparity of those who vote in proportion to the population. Latinos made up 39 percent of the total population with only 15 percent voting, while Asian Americans made up 13 percent with only 7 percent voting. It is clear that underrepresentation is a major problem.

According to Romero, this question is better answered by looking at which groups vote the least and understanding which factors contribute to voting disparities.

As California continues to tackle the vexing issue of low voter turnout, various groups offer different approaches to assessing the problem and figuring out which factors drive disparities. Romero suggests a significant component is a “low-turnout culture” in which many feel as though their vote doesn’t matter. While cultural influence is a likely driver in the complex issue of voter turnout, she also acknowledges that there are other important elements to be considered as well.

One group focused on these topics is the Future of California Elections (FoCE), an organization that assembles a diverse body of nonprofits, administrators, academics and other stakeholders to collaborate in order to address issues such as voter access, voter experience and election administration.

“Our member organizations recognize that there are no magic wands to solve voter turnout. Renewing our democracy will require dozens of solutions customized to our incredibly diverse cultural and political landscape” said Vince Hall, executive director of FoCE.

FoCE hosts a conference each year where members, policy makers, civic and community leaders, and other interested parties collaborate to share ideas and discuss how to improve all aspects of elections in California.

“From civic education and online tools for youth to multilingual poll workers and community-based mobilization programs, the whole of the problem will only be solved by the aggregate of many solutions working simultaneously,” said Hall.

One issue of particular interest at last year’s FoCE Conference dealt with California’s impasse on the lack of state funding for election administration. Simply put, when the state mandates counties to administer elections in certain ways, the law requires the state to reimburse counties for the cost of these mandates.

Due to the economic downturn in past years, these mandates were suspended and haven’t been reimbursed for over five years, leaving counties struggling to find ways to come up with the cash to adequately fund elections.

California Forward, a bipartisan governance improvement organization and member of FoCE, aims to look beyond the state mandate discussion and discover innovative ways to finance elections. Their Election Funding Project, a research project supported by the James Irvine Foundation, will provide an understanding of how elections are financed in California and in other states, as well as create a list of options for counties to provide more sustainably funded elections.

“California Forward has set out to improve California’s elections by focusing on the governance and financial backbone underlying our entire system,” said Phillip Ung, director of public affairs of California Forward. “Developing governance and fiscal systems that fully support the efforts of election officials can result in benefits that reverberate up to the voter experience.”

Through the different strategies and perspectives of the California Civic Engagement Project, the Future of California Elections, California Forward, and other stakeholders, California can begin to form a better understanding of why people are not showing up and casting their vote. These efforts in combination with electoral reform in the legislature bring new hope to the issue of voter turnout and under-representation.

Editor’s note: This article, written by Caitlin Maple, originally published on CA FWD’s blog, and has been modified slightly for publication on IVN.