CA120: The voter surge is now

Voters and potential voters at a political rally. (Photo: Joseph Sohm, via Shutterstock)

The June 7  Primary in California is less than two months away.  This means the election actually begins in a little more than three weeks, when voters begin receiving their absentee ballots in the mail.

And voter registration is increasing dramatically.

Until now, the expectations of a surge in participation were set based on the experiences in other states. Nationally, primaries and caucuses have seen record-setting involvement on both the Democratic and Republican sides of the presidential race, and it would be easy to conclude that this enthusiasm would translate to higher than normal rates of registration and turnout here.

Overall, registration has skyrocketed in the first months of 2016.  There have been over 850,000 registrations in the months between January 1 and March 31.

In a previous Capitol Weekly article we explored the normal biorhythms of the California Voter File – how growth in registrations generally peaks right before the Presidential General Elections, but drops, with mild recoveries, in a four-year cycle.

In fact, as we found in that analysis, the only time that the California Voter File ever actually grew in the 18 months prior to a Presidential Primary was in 1980, when Ronald Reagan was on the ballot.CA120_header4

In total registration, the current registration numbers seem lackluster.  At the peak, right before the 2012 General Election, the state topped 18 million voters.  Come the 2014 General Election, registration had actually dropped to 17.8 million, and at the beginning of the year was just 17.2 million.  This is largely an impact of counties cleaning up voter files, like the recent move of 107,000 voters in Orange County to “inactive” status.  This kind of continued cleanup has the impact of negating what has been nearly a million new registrants since the New Year.

But, fortunately, we can look beyond these totals, and dig into analysis of just the actual new registrants by county, party, ethnic group, and other factors.  This also allows us to identify what is actually a surging California electorate while the total number of voter might be right at, or even less than the total number of registrants 18 months ago.

This year we are seeing a doubling of registration growth among Latinos, and a more than 150% increase for some young voters, and a near-tripling for Democrats.

Overall, registration has skyrocketed in the first months of 2016.  There have been over 850,000 registrations in the months between January 1 and March 31.  This is twice as much as was registered during the same period in 2012.  It even exceeds the total new registrations in the months leading up to the 2008 Primary, albeit that was a February primary, so much of the registration window was dominated by the Fall and Winter holidays.

The scale and the timing of this registration boom can be seen in the following chart showing weekly registration rates for 2016 and the comparable weeks in 2012.  Early weeks show modest growth of about 35%, but that skyrockets to several weeks of growth at or exceeding 150%.Poll 1


This registration has also been more partisan in nature than in the same period before the 2012 election.  The voters selecting No Party Preference, or some other minor party, even American Independent Party, has been reduced to second rung among new registrants, where in 2012 it held the top spot in these early weeks of registrations.Poll 2



This skyrocketing registration can be broken out by partisanship, ethnicity and age, and shows some striking differences by group.  In a traditional election year, a 65% growth from the same period of last year would be remarkable.  But this year we are seeing a doubling of registration growth among Latinos, and a more than 150% increase for some young voters, and a near-tripling for Democrats.

Registration Growth Jan 1 – Mar 31, 2016 Compared to 2012

AGE 18-24 70%
AGE 25-30 161%


Looking at some other demographics of the California voter file prior to the 2014 General, the registrants prior to the end of 2015, and comparing to the new and re-registrants since the beginning of 2016 we can see further evidence of a surging registration that has the potential to also shift the California electorate.

Other Registration Demographics

2014 General 2015 2016
Age Under 30 17% 39% 41%
Age 30-49 32% 33% 32%
Age 50-64 29% 17% 16%
Age 65+ 22% 10% 10%
APT 19% 30% 30%
HOMEOWNER 55% 31% 30%
PAV 51% 65% 68%
HOME PHONE 49% 24% 21%
CELL PHONE 22% 39% 44%
EMAILS 24% 44% 53%

Much attention is paid to the age of new registrants.  However, newer registrants are generally younger, both as a function of the number of 18-19 year olds registering to vote for the first time, and the 20-30 year-olds who have moved once or several times since 2008 or 2012.

The fact that young voters are such a large and disproportionate share of the electorate should be weighed against the fact that since Jan. 1 the under-30 rate of registration is only two-points higher than in 2015, when there was no excited surge in registration.

This is also seen in the higher number of apartment registrants and lower numbers for homeowners – a trend that is driven by how transient these voters are, and is not necessarily evidence that the issues being discussed in the election are more appealing to these voters.

To campaigns, a more important factor is the number of new registrants who are selecting to become Permanent Absentee Voters (PAV), particularly if these are Democratic leaning voters who will have to request a Democratic ballot in order to vote in that presidential contest.  Additionally, we see an amazing change in the way that voters can be reached by campaigns or pollsters – only one-in-five of the new registrants have a land-line phone number on the file.  Yet, more than 50% have an email address – more than double the rate of voters with emails on the current file.

A part of this increased use of emails on registrations has to do with the desire of voters to get email confirmation when they register to vote online.

Online registrations show quick responses to events
Online registration has been seen as a convenient way to vote. For analytical purposes, it has the added advantage of being nearly immediate.  A voter excited or fearful of what is happening in the world can easily grab a laptop or smartphone and register at that moment, unlike paper registration where the moment is lost in the tasks of finding, completing and mailing a paper form.

Reviewing the daily rates of voter registration online, we can see some incredible spikes in registration that are consistent with key moments in the primary campaign.  Looking closely, we can deconstruct which voters are reacting to events when they decide to get engaged in the political process.

The following chart shows raw totals for voter registration online.Poll 3

Each of these peaks can be explained by looking at their dates and what national events were taking place on those days.

Online Registrations and Key Dates in Presidential Primary Contests

Date Primary / Caucus Online Reg Democrat Republican NPP/Other Latino
1-Feb Iowa  7,400 53% 18% 29% 21%
9-Feb New Hampshire  6,588 53% 19% 28% 20%
1-Mar Super Tuesday 18,144 57% 14% 29% 25%
15-Mar Florida  11,996 51% 22% 27% 27%
22-Mar Arizona 11,365 48% 28% 24% 23%
ALL 2015  256,801 46% 17% 36% 22%

The highest day of online registration was on Super Tuesday, with 18,144, followed by the two days afterwards, March 2 and 3 at 15,799 and 11,765, respectively.

Comparing this to Google Trends for each of these dates, we can see extremely similar peaks in online conversations and searches about Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, with the highest peaks for Bernie Sanders coming early and Donald Trump’s peaks coming around Super Tuesday and the Florida Primaries. Poll 4


Interestingly, during the greatest peak of Super Tuesday and two days following, we see the lowest new Republican registration at just 14%, the highest Democratic registration at 57%, and the beginning of an increased rate of Latino registration.  The Latino registration continues to grow through this period and peaks two weeks later when Trump wins the Florida Primary.

The real question moving forward is how this registration trend will develop or change in the coming weeks.  In prior years, these early registration numbers were low. But they made a sharp rise immediately before the registration deadline but stretched out until the registration deadline in late May.

In 2012, the last three weeks saw registration rates 50% higher than the weeks of January – March.  If this trend was carried forward to 2016 we would see more than 1.5 million new voters and the largest growth in registration before a Presidential Primary in 30 years.

Ed’s Note:  Paul Mitchell, a regular contributor to Capitol Weekly and the creator of the CA120 column, is vice president of Political Data Inc., and owner of Redistricting Partners, a political strategy and research company. 

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