Census data shows CA voter participation up across the board

A voter casts his ballot during the 2020 general election at a voting center in L.A.'s Pantages Theatre. (Photo: Ringo Chiu, via Shutterstock)

The U.S. Census Bureau’s voter survey of the November 2020 election shows that, once again, California saw increased participation in general and across nearly all demographics.  

A startling finding in the recently released data: In 2020, African American participation hit 64%, very close to 2008’s record 65.2%, when Barack Obama ran for president for the first time.

Of California’s 25.9 million eligible voters, 65.1% hit the polls, up from 2016’s 57.9%. California’s 2020 participation also topped 2008’s presidential election, when 63.4% of eligible voters turned out to vote for Barrack Obama or John McCain. 

Like 2008, the 2020 presidential election featured a very strong personality.

“What we saw all across the nation was a galvanized electorate: People galvanized for Donald Trump and people galvanized against him,” says Thad Kousser, chair of US San Diego’s political science department. “That’s the standard explanation of why this election brought out the highest number of adults ever.”

As with the 2018 midterm election, 2020’s increased participation was driven by demographic groups that typically post lower than average turnouts. Asian American participation among eligible voter jumped from 2016’s 51.9% to 59.9%. Latino voter participation went from 47.2% in 2016 to 54.6%.

In 2016, only 48.2% of voting-eligible African Americans made it to the polls, down from 2012’s 61.1%. But last year,  African American participation rose by 12 percentage points

Young voter participation, once again, saw large gains. In 2016, 42.7% of eligible voters 18 to 24 and 54.9% of voters 25 to 34 turned out. In 2020, those percentages jumped to 53.6% (18 to 24) and 60% (25 to 34).

The question many are asking is, “Can the trend of increased participation be sustained?” Kousser noted. 

“As the stakes of politics may seem a little bit lower as we move, as many people are expecting, to more ‘normal’ political times does that lead to a decline in turnout overall,” he said, “which always brings especially deep declines in parts of the population that are only intermittently engaged.”

A lot of what happens with participation hinges on voter registrations. Census numbers show that when people are registered to vote, there is a greater chance that they will actually go to the polls, especially when the stakes in an election seem high.

In 2016, 89.6% of California’s registered voters voted. In 2020, that percentage jumped to a record 93.8%. Nationally,  those percentages were 87.3% (2016) and 91.9% (2020). 

“Being registered is almost all of the ballgame,” said Kousser. “When we were hitting the depths of low turnout in 2014, to find am election with a smaller raw number of voters you have to go back to the 1960s. What you are seeing now is that candidates matter.”

However, Kousser says voter suppression and voter registration purges can affect the ultimate results. “We’ve seen very quickly a set of laws passed in conservative and especially swing states that, with redistricting, can set up a set of logistical hurdles to turnout that are more important than who is on the ballot.“

Currently, Californians do not have to deal with voter suppression laws. Its voting rolls are also not subject to the arbitrary purges that happen in some other states. Thus, voter participation hinges on the candidates and issues in a particular election, as well as how important voters feel a particular election is. 

When asked if 2020’s record participation foreshadows what turnout might be in a 2021 gubernatorial recall election, Kousser replied that off-year elections typically see turnouts “much lower” than midterms, which typically see 50% to 60% turnout of registered voters.

“A galvanizing candidate like Arnold Schwarzenegger or Donald Trump can help spur higher-than-typical turnout, but without such a candidate emerging, I think it will take tremendous mobilization efforts to push more than 60% of registered voters to participate in a recall held in the summer or early fall of 2021,” he said. 


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: