CA120: The voter registration surge

A California ballot box. (Photo illustration, Hafakot, via Shutterstock)

Heading into the June 7 election, candidates and political observers are witnessing a barnstorming Democratic presidential primary contest and a Republican race that is resolved, but with unknown impacts.

With this comes a lot of questions about the changing electorate and how the current state of the presidential contests will impact turnout and the composition of voters in down-ballot races.

The big news is voter registration.

It was expected that California would see a surge of registration prior to November, not June.  For each of the two past presidential cycles we had seen two million or more new and re-registrations in the lead-up to the general elections, with moderate growth for the primaries.CA Logo

But the growth in the past five months has been record-breaking.  With some counties still completing their 15-day close of registration, we have surpassed all prior registration records with more than 2.3 million voters registering for the first time or updating their registration.

This is by far the largest number of pre-primary registrations the state, or country, has ever seen.  It breaks every trend we described in our first story on the basics of the voter file.  And this primary voter surge marks the first time since 1980, when Reagan was a Republican presidential candidate, that the voter file actually grew in the period from the prior gubernatorial general election to the presidential primary.

This growth comes despite some counties reporting high rates of  purging deadwood from the files, and making “inactive” large numbers of voters who have not participated in past elections.graf 1


Strikingly, Latino registration in this primary was higher in raw numbers than Latino registration before either of the past two presidential generals, and 50% higher than the past two primary elections combined.

This registration saw massive spikes driven by both enthusiasm and organized efforts by groups ranging from Tom Steyer’s Next Gen Climate Change to Republican candidate Donald Trump’s robocall, to a single-day Facebook button that the Secretary of State’s office credits with a 200,00 voter surge over 48 hours.

A chart of the weekly registration shows the massive surge in detail.  Amazingly, the final week of registration exceed a half-million voters.  For scale, this last week of registration was larger than the first 8.5 months of 2015.graf 2

The same chart, but showing the Partisan breakdown by week, compared to 2012, gives a sense of how massive this surge was, particularly for Democrats who accounted for more than 300,000 registrations in the last week alone.graf 3


Compared with 2012 pre-primary registration by subgroup, this latest registration either tripled or quadrupled the rate of signups.

TOTAL Up 181%
LATINO Up 192%
AGE 18-24 Up 115%
AGE 25-30 Up 246%
Comparing 2012 and 2016 registration from Jan 1 – May 23.

One trend that was much touted, and which would have developed dramatically had the Republican primary race carried on through California, was the potential for party switching.  A prior article looked at this issue through the lens of voters who could be switching parties to game the election.

While this never seemed to be a real trend, as the following graphic shows, the number of independent voters who were re-registering as Democratic and Republican began spiking in March.

This was driven by natural re-registrations, many of whom might have been independent, but had over time found more in common with one of the two political parties.  But there were also some significant partisan pushes, most notably a series of Donald Trump robocalls and Facebook ads from Sacramento political consultant Tim Clark targeting independents.

This Republican push seemed to have the intended impact, but when Trump locked the party nomination, the rate of registrations nearly halted while Democratic switching continued unabated. graf 5

The totals for the last three months of the registration period show few voters converting away from the political parties, and more conversions to Democratic than Republican, a gap almost entirely borne out after Trump became the sole remaining candidate.

Party Conversions March – May
DEM TO REP  41,977
DEM TO OTHER  29,873
REP TO DEM  39,764
REP TO OTHER  25,708
OTHER TO DEM  109,055
OTHER TO REP  77,186


Totals by Party
To NPP/OTHER  55,581
To Republican  119,163
To Democrat  148,819

While voter registration is the big pre-election data story of this campaign cycle, the second shoe to drop is turnout.  Thus far, voter turnout has been high and partisan, but seemingly not reflective of the youthful and strongly Latino pool of new and re-registered voters.

Our tracking of absentee votes, with a comparison to the absentee voting rates of the 2104 primary and general, shows a higher overall turnout than either 2014 election, but much of the same composition

While the majority of new registrants were under 35 years old, these voters only account for 10% of the votes that have been cast so far this election cycle.  Latinos who are nearly one-in-four voters in California, are only one-in-eight of who have returned a ballot.  Nearly 70% of the votes cast so far have come from voters over 55 years old.

As could be expected for a primary election with extremely strong partisan themes, the electorate to date has lacked participation by Independent voters.  Some of this could be attributable to the well-documented issues with these voters getting partisan presidential ballots, but the larger fact is that nonpartisan voters always have lower performance in primaries and local elections – instead turning out only for General Elections in the fall.

In the initial returns we also see a Democratic leaning to these early voters.  Statewide, Democrats are turning out at a 15-point advantage, more than double the 7-point advantage in the 2014 primary.

It is generally expected that higher-performing Republican voters will narrow the registration gap in primaries, boosting their candidates into one of the top-two spots in legislative, congressional and even statewide elections. However, with this widening gap in early voter turnout, many are speculating that the varying interest in the Democratic and Republican primaries might have down-ticket impacts on the US Senate race or other contests where a Republican might not make the November runoff.

This tracker will be updated daily as we head into the Tuesday election, but it would take a massive turnout by young and Latino voters for the final election results to be reflective of this seemingly enthusiastic and motivated election surge.

Ed’s Note: Paul Mitchell is the creator of Capitol Weekly’s CA120 column, which explores 2016 election issues in California. He is vice president of Political Data Inc., and owner of Redistricting Partners, a bipartisan political strategy and research company.  Intern Alan Nigel Yan of UC Berkeley’s Political Science Department assisted with this article. Yan is a Fellow in the Cal-in-Sacramento program. 


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