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Experts widely agree that voting in California is getting easier: All registered voters now receive their ballots by mail, which can be tracked through a U.S. Postal Service serial number. Voters in many parts of the state can visit any voting center in their county instead of having a designated polling place. California law recently allowed same-day voter registration, which is available at all voting locations

Yet the state is seeing only a modest reduction in turnout disparity gaps, mostly tied to expansion of voting by mail.

“With all the changes to our elections, we’re not seeing a significant reduction in turnout disparities in California, overall,” said Mindy Romero, founder and director of the Center for Inclusive Democracy at the University of Southern California. “We are not seeing the gaps in turnout reduce between white and Latino, white and Black, white and Asian American voters.”

A Votebeat analysis found racial gaps in turnout during the 2020 general election, and Latinos especially lagged behind, Cal Matters reported in 2020. In areas with large communities of color, about 70% of registered voters cast a ballot. In primarily white areas, 87% of voters did. 

“In any conceivable dimension, we’ve made voting easier in California,” said Eric McGhee, a senior fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California. “What we know from decades of research on voting is that older people, wealthier people, more educated people, more settled people, such as homeowners – they all vote at higher rates.”

White people make up 41% of California’s voting-age population but 54% of the state’s likely voters, the Public Policy Institute of California reported last year. Latinos make up 35% of the voting-age population but 22% of the state’s likely voters. 

This is an example of how changes to make voting easier don’t automatically translate into many more voters, said Charles Stewart, director of the MIT Election Data and Science Lab. He calls this the “1% Effect.” 

“The belief is that anything that decreases the cost of voting is going to see an increase in turnout. Inevitably, we almost never see those effects – or if we do, they’re very small,” he said. “Maybe you see that 1% increase in turnout because you let everyone start registering on Election Day. But it’s the white affluent people who are going to take advantage of the reforms the most.” 

Turnout is generally driven by what candidates and parties do, he said. And campaigns always focus on the people they know they can get on board the fastest. 

“Campaigns still start, and have the most success, with the type of person who is already voting: People who have a credit card, people who have an education, people who are high income, people who are home all day,” Stewart said. “Even with all the election reforms, the effects are going to be subtle.”  

Absentee ballots for all

California made universal vote-by-mail a permanent election feature for every registered voter in September 2021, when Gov. Gavin Newsom signed into law a bill passed by the state legislature. Every active voter in the state now has a vote-by-mail ballot sent to their home. This effort began as a temporary measure in 2020 to make pandemic voting safer and smoother.

The government pays for voters’ return postage.

“Statewide, we saw high absentee ballot turnout, period,” Romero said. “Out of all the models we identified, it was the automatic vote-by-mail ballot that increased voter turnout in 2020.” 

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This project looks at the state of voting access, voting rights and inequities in political representation in all 50 states and Washington, D.C.

And turnout equity improved under this provision. The Black-white, Latino-white and Asian American-white turnout gaps declined by a few percentage points each after it was implemented, according to the Public Policy Institute of California

The state does require signature matching on absentee ballots, a rule advocates say can disenfranchise voters. But unlike some states that saw thousands of absentee ballots thrown out in 2020, California’s Every Vote Counts Act of 2018 allows those with mismatched signatures to remedy their ballots if a mistake led to their rejection.

Voting rights for parolees

California voters passed Proposition 17 in November 2020, which amended the state constitution to automatically restore voting rights to people on parole upon leaving prison. Nearly 60% of voters supported the ballot measure. 

Before that change took effect, people had to wait until completing parole to get that right back — a process that could take years. 

Those in favor of passing Proposition 17 highlighted the racial injustice of felony disenfranchisement, noting that Black and Latino Californians lose the right to vote at higher rates. They are “more likely than white people to be arrested, prosecuted, convicted and incarcerated,” the Urban Institute wrote, for reasons that include racial disparities in policing and sentencing. 

More than 50,000 Californians on parole were unable to vote in the 2020 election. 

The Voters’ Choice Act

Before the state made universal absentee voting a permanent election fixture, the California Voters’ Choice Act allowed counties the option to implement it. 

The Act makes voting more flexible and accessible in the counties that choose to adopt it, proponents say. It became law in 2016, and it was first adopted two years later by five counties. All counties now have the option to participate, and 15 were doing so by the 2020 elections. 

Counties that implement the Voters’ Choice Act are required to do the following (and more):

  • Replace assigned polling places with county-wide vote centers, so voters can go wherever is convenient in their county
  • Include additional resources for voters at their county-wide vote centers, such as language assistance and accessible voting machines
  • Expand in-person early voting

While a growing number of counties have opted in, some localities haven’t because they fear that change would concern or confuse voters, Romero said. Others want to see how successful it is before taking it on themselves. 

Romero thinks the Voting Rights Act will become the majority system for elections in California with time. 

“Across counties, both VCA counties and non-VCA counties, the overwhelming majority of voters don’t know about the changes that have happened in the past couple years,” Romero said. “In VCA counties, even with all the outreach required, only about a third of eligible voters knew, in some form, there were changes in how, where and when they could vote.” 

Advocates proposed allocating $85 million in the 2022-23 state budget for voter outreach and education, noting how turnout disparity hasn’t shrunk. 

“Unfortunately this funding was not included in the budget and is needed to fight the rampant mis- and disinformation fueling threats against election workers and undermining voter confidence,” the California Voter Foundation wrote in August, “and to ensure California’s underrepresented populations aren’t further left behind in the shift to increased use of vote-by-mail ballots.” 

The California Voting Rights Act

The California Voting Rights Act, signed into law in 2002, helped voters in districts where people of color are in the majority elect candidates of their choice, McGhee said. 

The law targets cities that elect members at-large — all candidates running citywide instead of in single-member districts. Conducting at-large elections dilutes minority votes, making it less likely they will be represented, The Washington Post reported

If a plaintiff can prove that voters from different racial groups prefer different candidates, the CVRA says the city is required to elect city council members by district instead. 

The CVRA has largely succeeded, research shows. Latinos and other minorities were underrepresented in California’s elected bodies when the law first passed, but minority representation is now much higher at the local city council level. 

“County boards, city councils — they’ve been transformed. And these positions are pipelines for higher office too. It’s been a big change,” McGhee said. 

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Kimberly Cataudella is the 2020 American University Fellow working on the data team while completing...