Voter participation dramatically increased in California in the 2018 midterm elections, part of a nationwide trend.
About 51.9% of California’s 25.1 million eligible voters hit the polls in the 2018 general election, up from 36.6% in 2014, the previous midterm election, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Leading the increase in midterm voting are categories of voters who are often disparaged for not voting proportionate to their numbers in the population.
Just as impressive, California’s 2018 midterm mark was only 6 percentage points below that of the 2016 presidential election. Typically, midterm voter participation is at least 30% lower than in a presidential election.
Why the dramatic rise in voter participation?
“Was it opposing Trump or preserving Obamacare that turned people out? Was it Charlottesville or Parkland that most appalled key constituencies? It’s very hard to tell, because we had multiple causes and only a single election,” says Thad Kousser, political science professor at UC San Diego and a veteran elections watcher.
Leading the increase in midterm voting are categories of voters who are often disparaged for not voting proportionate to their numbers in the population, especially Latinos, African Americans and members of the 18-to-24 and 25- to-34 age groups.
In the 2014 midterms, 29.9% of California’s eligible African American voters voted. In 2018, that percentage was 50.6%, an increase of 20.7 percentage points. The 2014 midterm California Latino vote was 24.9% of eligible. In 2018 that number jumped 18.4 points to 43.3% of eligible Latino voters.
Gains in California’s 18-to-24 and 25-to-34 age demographics are also dramatic.
For 18-to-24 year-olds, the jump was 19.4 percentage points, from 2014’s 15.9% to 2018’s 35.3%. The increase in participation in the 25-to-34 age group is even more impressive. It went from 21.6% in 2014 to 43.2% in 2018, a nearly unheard-of leap of 21.6 percentage points. Also, the 35-to-44 age demographic had a notable increase: From 2014’s 30.5% to 2018’s 49.2% – a gain of 18.7 points.
In California and nationwide, the last time a midterm election saw similar numbers was in 1978 – forty years ago.
Additionally, almost every other race, gender, and age demographic saw a double-digit increase in California voter participation from 2014 to 2018.
Female voters jumped 16.6 percentage points, while the male vote gained 13.9 points. The non-Hispanic white vote increased by 14.8 points. The Asian vote jumped 13.9 points. And Californians aged 45-to-64 saw a gain of 11.4 points. The only demographic that failed to hit a double-digit increase were those 65 and older. Seniors had a 6.9 increase in voter participation. However, the 65-plus group also participates at a higher clip than any other demographic – in 2018, 63.8% of eligible seniors voted.
While California’s turnout increase of 15.3% between 2014 and 2018 is impressive, it is not a regional anomaly.
Nationally, voter participation from 2014 to 2018 increased by 11 points. Additionally, 32 other states saw a higher voter participation than California (Maine, Wisconsin, Montana, and Minnesota top the list). Among all states, California’s female and male participation rank 29 and 35. California is 10th in the Hispanic vote, 11th in the non-Hispanic white vote, 14th in the Asian vote, and 17th in the black vote.
The increase in the youth vote is also part of a nationwide trend. Nationally, 36% of 18-to-29-year-olds voted in the 2018 midterm, up from 20% in 2014.
One more statistic: In California and nationwide, the last time a midterm election saw similar numbers was in 1978 – forty years ago.
Kousser says that healthcare and jobs, two keys issues in the midterms, have been Democratic issues for decades, while mass shootings tragically have become a reality of American life. Aggressive and sophisticated Get Out The Vote (GOTV) campaigns have became a staple of American politics.
“The state also piloted a program called The Voter’s Choice Act (VCA) in select counties that allows for more flexible voting options.” — Carolyn DeWitt
But the “new and overwhelming factor in the 2018 election was the president,” Kousser said, and perhaps Trump is the catalyst for “the overall rise in turnout and the especially sharp increases among the groups he has alienated the most”– youth, people of color, immigrant citizens.
Carolyn DeWitt, executive director of Rock The Vote, says that while opposition to Trump helped boost turnout, “California had a number of competitive federal, state and local races in addition to issue-based propositions so voters were motivated knowing their vote could make the difference in an election.”
“California has passed and implemented policies that promote civic participation such as automatic voter registration, conditional same day voter registration, and pre-registration for 16- and 17 year-olds, which have been shown to significantly increase participation, particularly among voters from low-income backgrounds, people of color and youth voters,” DeWitt said. “The state also piloted a program called The Voter’s Choice Act (VCA) in select counties that allows for more flexible voting options.”
“Political campaigns spent billions advertising on TV, yet half of millennials haven’t seen a minute of live TV in the past year.” — Debra Cleaver.
And, VCA did have an impact on turnout.
According to a study of the 2018 midterm election by University of California’s New Electorate Project, the counties that used the VCA to establish voting centers — Madera, Napa, Nevada, Sacramento, and San Mateo – offered voters a choice as to where they wanted to vote, and those counties saw a 3.5% bump in voter participation over counties that did not adopt the VCA. Additionally, the VCA counties had more participation from young voters aged 18-to-24 (+6.8%), Latinos (+3.8%) and Asian-American (+4%) than counties that did not adopt VCA.
DeWitt also warns against simplifying the youth vote.
Young voters represent “the largest, most diverse generation in our country’s history. In states like California, the youth population is even more diverse,” DeWitt said. She suggests that young people do not care so much about political party affiliation as they do about such issues as the president’s zero tolerance immigration policy, the GOP attacks on the Affordable Care Act or the president’s perceived ambiguity on racism, specifically following the events in Charlottesville, Virginia.
But those views of President Trump and his Republican supporters do not guarantee voter participation, said Debra Cleaver, who heads Vote.org, a GOTV operation. She notes that 2018’s dramatic increase in voting, especially among youth, was helped by modern-day GOTV strategies.
Cleaver said that “political campaigns spent billions advertising on TV, yet half of millennials haven’t seen a minute of live TV in the past year.” She adds that for a fraction of the what campaigns spent, Vote.org and others engaged with young voters online, through text messaging, collaborations with Lyft and Nextdoor, and voter drives featuring celebrities such as Barack Obama, Beyoncé and Taylor Swift (who, with one Instagram post, netted 365,000 people registered to vote within 72 hours).
The 2018 midterms also saw a return to more traditional tried-and-true ways to get out the vote.
For instance, California Away Team, a GOTV group who contacted nearly 100,000 “midterm skipping Democrats” in districts CA-04 and CA-07, says their intensive door-knocking campaign, “netted a 9% voting lift,” a figure that has not been independently confirmed.
We will not know until after the 2020 election if increased voter participation in 2018 was a one-time thing or will be part of a long-term trend. Demographics suggest the later. And, since winning rewards participation, electoral gains by Democrats, youth, women, and communities of color favor continued and perhaps increased voter participation.