We Californians justifiably become excited about our many remarkable achievements: we make terrific movies; Silicon Valley leads the planet in technological innovation; our traffic jams are world class.
But when it comes to voting, we give a statewide shrug.
A mere 42.2 percent of registered voters — registered voters — bothered to cast ballots in the November 2014 general election. Los Angeles County bottomed out statewide with a turnout of 31 percent. It gets even worse: The June 2014 turnout was 25.2 percent.
Latinos recently became the state’s single largest ethnic group, with 38.6 percent of the population. But they represent only 19. 6 percent of California’s registered voters.
“I fear we are at the point where voting has become a quaint, old-fashioned pastime of yore, like writing thank-you notes,” says Kim Alexander, president and founder of the California Voter Foundation, an organization devoted to increasing voter turnout.
“We are at risk of the process becoming irrelevant and unfamiliar to a whole new generation of Californians,” she recently told a joint meeting of the Senate Elections and Constitution Amendment Committee and the Assembly’s Committee on Elections and Redistricting.
One of the salient features of Californians’ lack of enthusiasm for voting is the abysmal turnout among Latinos.
California’s Latino population grew by 33 percent between 2000 and 2012, three times the state’s overall growth of 11 percent during the same period, reports the Public Policy Institute of California. Latinos recently became the state’s single largest ethnic group, with 38.6 percent of the population. But they represent only 19. 6 percent of California’s registered voters.
An analysis by political data guru Paul Mitchell found that a mere 28 percent of those registered Latino voters voted in the 2014 general election in California. Thirty-seven percent of registered Asian-Americans voted, as did 32 percent of registered African-Americans and 49 percent of white voters.
Political strategists realize that Latinos are a sleeping lion, but the lion has snoozed for decades, and shows little sign of waking up anytime soon, despite the best efforts of many. The Latino share of California’s 2014 vote declined to 15.4 percent from 19.3 percent in 2012, according to UC Davis’s California Civic Engagement Project.
What accounts for the low Latino turnout?
Young people gave voting a pass last November. Only only 8.2 percent of Californians age 18-24 cast a ballot.
Among other things, a vicious circle: Because they don’t vote in numbers comparable to whites, campaign managers with limited budgets ignore them; because they’re ignored, they don’t vote; because they don’t vote, they’re ignored.
Bill Wong, an expert on Asian voting patterns and campaign consultant, says the same thing holds true for Asian voters. “It’s a chicken-and-egg thing,” he says.
There are also related structural barriers to Latino and Asian voting, including lack of knowledge about the registration/voting process, language difficulties and the consequent diminution of access to voter information. There is also the possibility that decades of corrupt politics in Mexico may have simply turned off Latinos about voting and government in general.
If the lack of voting from Latinos isn’t bad enough, young people gave voting a pass last November. Only only 8.2 percent of Californians age 18-24 cast a ballot.
“In California, an 18- or 19-year-old was more likely to be arrested this year than actually vote in one of the statewide elections,” Mitchell told KQED’s John Myers.
There are a number of additional theories about the overall voter decline. Some observers point out that the November 2014 midterm election wasn’t particularly exciting, so fewer people, regardless of ethnicity, bothered to cast ballots. Not many Californians thought that Jerry Brown would have trouble disposing of Neel Kashkari. There were no ballot initiatives that would set off torchlight parades.
In a year with a hotly contested presidential election, however, voter participation zooms, says data expert Mitchell.
“In all of the Asian campaigns I’ve been involved in, reaching out is vital.”
“You have to differentiate between elections,” he says. “Turnout for local and state elections is strikingly lower than for national presidential elections. It’s like someone who pays little attention to pro football until the Superbowl. Voters pay attention when it’s the Superbowl.”
The Latino vote in California could also be spiked upward by billionaire Donald Trump. His utterances on the unworthiness of undocumented immigrants have provoked ire among California Latinos. In the eyes of many, Trump is doing yeoman work — for the Democrats.
(Trump’s anti-immigration stance in fact has provoked over-the-top fury from at least one California Republican official. “Trump is a pig,’ Shawn Steel, California’s representative to the Republican National Committee, told The Los Angeles Times.)
Wong says that Asians turn out at the polls in greater numbers if there’s an Asian candidate on the ballot. He points out that in addition, much of the turnout among the Asian community depends on communication.
Anyone interested in Sacramento doings and politics can choose from an abundance of sources such as blogs and websites in addition to newspapers, radio and television.
“The biggest thing is whether there’s outreach,” he said in a telephone interview. “In all of the Asian campaigns I’ve been involved in, reaching out is vital.” Communicating with potential Asian voters is relatively complicated, he says, and White campaign managers frequently haven’t mastered the techniques.
“Ordinary mailing doesn’t get it,” he added. Communication has to take into account language obstacles, among other things. A campaign ad in English in a daily newspaper is not going to be as effective as a language-appropriate, targeted appeal.
Ironically, Wong says, there’s a falloff in Asian voting enthusiasm the more familiar Asians become with California politics.
“The minute they register, they’re all enthusiastic, figuring it’s their duty to vote. The longer they stay registered, they become hardened,” he says.
Not only is voter turnout low, Mitchell points out, adherence to party labels, particularly Republican, is declining. He predicts that decline-to-state voters — independents — will outnumber Republicans in California by 2016. Negative campaign ads against “those Sacramento politicians” are probably loosening the connections to political parties, he says.
Is there a falling-off of interest in California political news? In the mid-1970’s, what was then called the Capitol Press Corps numbered around 70 reporters. Now, there are about 30. Is news from Sacramento losing out to the enticements of today’s ever-gaudier entertainment? That falloff in reporter numbers doesn’t necessarily mean that political news is less available or that there is less interest, Mitchell contends.
“The culture around political news has diffused. There are any new channels of political news now in addition to newspapers, TV and radio,” he says. Anyone interested in Sacramento doings and politics can choose from an abundance of sources such as blogs and websites in addition to newspapers, radio and television.
What can be done to boost California’s voter turnout?
Alexander of the California Voter Foundation has some suggestions placed on the organization’s website:
–Improve and expand online voting information by creating a unified voters guide online of official state and local official ballot information and by helping voters access additional resources from candidates such as videos and social media accounts and nonpartisn resources from the nonprofit sector.
–Improve the vote-by-mail process by enhancing and expanding the statewide signature verification guidelines on a separate statement, and establishing statewide guidelines for ballot drop-off sites and:
–Fund election programs in the state budget to ensure existing and future mandated programs, such as same-day registration that are consistently implemented across all 58 counties and explore alternative funding mechanisms that reward and support counties that expand voter registration and participation.
There have been other suggestions. How about a “loss leader” that would help entice Californians to vote by adding a kind of poll question to the ballot: “How do you feel about X?” Or perhaps elimination of registration entirely. Both would require some heavy legal and legislative lifting.
California has an abundance of idealistic and knowledgeable people working on the problem of low voter turnout. In addition, there are political advantages to be gained by clever outreach to Hispanic, youthful and Asian voters. Politicians are well aware of them. But whether the coming years will see anything approaching full political participation by all Californians remains very much an open question.
Ed’s Note: Chuck McFadden is a former Associated Press political reporter in Sacramento. He is the author of “Trailblazer: A Biography of Jerry Brown” from the University of California Press.