CA120: Voter reforms increased Latino votes but not Latino voting power

Photo by Ray Buse via Shutterstock

Nearly a decade ago, the 2014 gubernatorial election was the lowest turnout election in the state’s history. With a lackluster set of statewide campaigns, no polarizing ballot measures, and a relatively unexcited electorate, fewer than a third of the state’s eligible voters cast a ballot.

Low turnout elections like we saw in 2014 don’t result from an equal drop in voting by all groups, they are driven by extremely poor turnout from young voters, Latinos, renters and residents in lower-socioeconomic communities. As a result, these elections become decided by a segment of the electorate that is significantly older, whiter, and more affluent than the state population as a whole.

Following this election, in 2015 state legislative leaders and staff traveled to Colorado where they were pioneering the use of additional methods of voting, including mailing ballots to all voters, additional in-person early and election day voting options, and sophisticated tools to allow voters to cast ballots anywhere in their county – not just at their local precinct. Their goal: to find reforms that could increase turnout for traditionally low turnout voters and make an electorate that better reflects California.

For years the elections research and practical on-the-ground experience by campaigns had shown that voting by mail increased turnout. Statewide disparities in use of vote by mail – particularly comparing the low VBM rates in Los Angeles County to the high VBM usage in the Bay Area – had been pointed to as a major factor in the state’s unrepresentative electorate, and even the historic strength of Northern Californians in statewide contests. At no time from 2002-2018 had more than three of the state’s 10 statewide constitutional offices been held by elected officials from Southern California, where vote by mail rates were significantly lower.

The Colorado Model for election administration became a rallying point for good-government organizations, legislators and the more activist style of then Secretary of State Alex Padilla. The expressed hope with these reforms would be that they could facilitate an easier voting process, with more pathways for voters to return their ballots, and allow greater opportunities for Latinos, Asians and African Americans, young voters, renters and voters from other lower socioeconomic groups that were disproportionally lower turnout than others.

These reforms, under the “Voters Choice Act” were brought, on a voluntary basis, to five counties in 2018, another half-dozen counties in the 2020 primary.

Then the pandemic hit.

Through the spring and summer of 2020 the governor, secretary of state and legislative leaders worked with counties to understand the potential challenges of holding elections during a pandemic. Counties were finding that they couldn’t secure their traditional polling locations – educators, as an example, were focused on keeping students safe, and weren’t thrilled about the prospect of thousands of voters coming to their campuses to vote. For other polling places at nursing homes, hospitals, and other health facilities, access to most buildings was limited, and hosting in-person voting would be nearly impossible. Staffing was also a major concern as most polling place volunteers were seniors or members of other more COVID-vulnerable communities.

While the introduction of the VCA was still in its infancy, parts of these reforms were quickly adapted statewide for the 2020 General Election in order to deal with these pandemic issues. This began with the mailing of ballots to all voters, but also included additional VCA-like steps by a number of counties that were allowed to reduce their reliance of local precinct voting, and use fewer, but more full-featured, in person voting centers with additional days of in-person voting.

Low turnout elections like we saw in 2014 don’t result from an equal drop in voting by all groups, they are driven by extremely poor turnout from young voters, Latinos, renters and residents in lower-socioeconomic communities. As a result, these elections become decided by a segment of the electorate that is significantly older, whiter, and more affluent than the state population as a whole.

In that General Election, full implementation of the VCA was done by 18 counties, allowing voters to cast ballots at any voting location in their county and with the education/outreach required in the Act. Another 17 counties used a VCA-lite version without all the outreach/education provisions of the law, but with a system that mirrored the voting experience. The remaining counties either used a vote center model, but requiring voters to cast a ballot at their assigned voting location, or retained the traditional precinct-based method with no early voting options other than going to the county registrar office.

During this period I was able to serve on a task force with the Secretary of State’s office, election reform groups and county registrars. Our discussions, and research done through polling and focus groups, identified some significant concerns with how different voters would adapt to the conversion to an entirely vote-by-mail process. The pandemic made in-person voting harder, but it was going to be necessary as we heard from many voters in these focus groups that they, or even their parents, wouldn’t trust vote by mail, or they would want to have that same in-person tactile experience of voting on Election Day. This was most dramatic among Latino and African American voters.

As November was quicky approaching, emphasis was put on education of voters. State and county efforts to communicate with voters when their ballots were mailed, and even text messages when a ballot was received by a county and counted, added to voter trust in the system.

A post-election study of these abrupt changes to the voting process in November 2020 was done by PPIC, and the results were mixed. Turnout was high, but it was hard to discern how much of that was a function of the overall pandemic environment, the polarization of the presidential contest, the rising numbers of protests and social unrest, and the changes in the election system.

The analysis did find a narrowing of the turnout gap for younger voters who participated in higher numbers relative to all voters. But, at the same time, there was evidence that Latinos and African Americans turned out in relatively lower numbers. As the report summarized “mailed ballots disproportionately elevated turnout for overrepresented groups, producing a larger turnout gap.” Additionally, the analysis found that “consolidating polling places for in-person voting… widened the turnout gap for African Americans and Latinos.”

As this report was being released, in March 2022, Governor Gavin Newsom and lawmakers had already extended the pandemic-era change which required the mailing of ballots to all voters, and allowed the continued mix of VCA implementation, with more counties making a full implementation, but still dozens of counties using a blended system, or sticking with traditional precincts. The ability for the Secretary of State and lawmakers to adjust course or invest more in voter education was diminishing as the June primary was just months away.

In counties like Los Angeles, we see almost no increase in Latino share of votes cast from 2014-2022, and even drops in electoral impact of older Latinos.

2022 looked, on paper, very similar to the 2014 election cycle. A gubernatorial election cycle, with a Democratic incumbent, and all the rest of the statewide campaigns were unexciting – no Republican challengers came within arms-length of a Democratic incumbent in any of these races. The only thing that seemed to provide some voter enthusiasm was Proposition 1, the ballot measure to enshrine abortion access in the state constitution and a handful of local competitive races, such as the mayoral race in Los Angeles.

Despite the similar election cycle, raw voter turnout dramatically eclipsed turnout in that 2014 election. A part of the growth in total voters casting ballots came from the improved state registration, but beyond that the state also had a higher share of registered voters casting ballots.

Statewide, the state’s rate of registration has skyrocketed over the past decade, largely due to the change in Motor Voter laws and creation of an automatic voter registration system championed by Padilla. These grew the total number of voters from 17.8 million in 2014 to 22 million in 2022 – a whopping 25% increase. And turnout grew by twice that – from under 7.5 million votes cast in 2014 to over 11 million in 2022.

Among young voters, this increase was even greater. The registration of voters aged 18-34 ballooned from 4.8 million to 6.5 million, and their raw voter turnout more than doubled, from 900,000 in 2014 to 1.95 million in 2022. Importantly, the rate of increased turnout for young people was greater than the rate of increase for other age groups, resulting in their share of all votes cast increasing from 12% of votes in 2014 to 18% in 2022 – that’s a 6-point bump, or a 50% growth relative to all other age groups. This, the increased share of total votes cast, is the real measure as it shows that campaigns now have to campaign more to the needs of younger voters.

But for Latinos we see something a bit different. A massive increase in registration – from 4 million in 2014 to 6 million in 2022, and commensurate increase in raw turnout, from 1.1 million to 2 million. However, the share of increase in votes cast relative to non-Latino portions of the electorate was not as great. They went from 15% of votes cast in 2014 to 19% in 2022. This 4-point increase is only a 26% increase – and almost all of this came from younger Latino voters whose turnout doubled while older Latino turnout seems to have stalled.

In counties like Los Angeles, we see almost no increase in Latino share of votes cast from 2014-2022, and even drops in electoral impact of older Latinos.

It seems impossible, but in the city of LA, which is nearly half-Latino, the last competitive mayoral race in 2013 saw 93,000 votes cast by Latinos, making them 23% of votes cast in that election. Fast forward to 2022, and the next competitive mayoral election, and 220,000 Latinos cast ballots, but still representing just 23% of votes cast. This means that the move to having the LA municipal elections concurrent with the statewide calendar had the intended impact of increasing the total votes cast – growing it from 400,000 to 950,000 – a more than doubling of votes – but didn’t raise the share of voters that were Latino, and definitely failed to increase their relative share of electoral power.

African Americans have also seen a similar lower rates of improvement in turnout, while Asians have seemingly benefited more from the by-mail voting structure than other ethnic subgroups.

This all needs more attention and research from PPIC and other academics as we look toward 2024 and future California elections. What California has done in advancing election reforms should be lauded, but without attention we could find that it fails to meet its potential to close the turnout gaps that have been endemic in the state and appear to persist for some groups.

Want to see more stories like this? Sign up for The Roundup, the free daily newsletter about California politics from the editors of Capitol Weekly. Stay up to date on the news you need to know.

Sign up below, then look for a confirmation email in your inbox.


Support for Capitol Weekly is Provided by: