In summary

Research shows significant racial and age participation disparities in elections. Why? Because many eligible voters don’t know how to vote or where to vote, and, most significantly, don’t feel voting makes a difference to their lives.

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By Mindy Romero, Special to CalMatters

Mindy Romero is the director of the Center for Inclusive Democracy at the University of Southern California Price School of Public Policy.

Midterm primary elections are notorious for low voter turnout, and California’s primary on Tuesday is expected to yield some of the lowest turnout numbers of eligible voters in the state’s history — despite the highest primary election voter registration in 68 years.

It’s a disturbing trend that is entrenched in our electoral system, with no signs of changing. We need to do a better job of funding and implementing voter education and outreach to ensure that primary elections do the job they were intended to do — narrow the field of candidates for the general election ballot.

In the state’s most recent midterm primary election, held in 2018, nearly three-quarters of the state’s eligible voters — 72% — did not vote. Yet 2018 saw the highest midterm primary turnout in two decades.

Worse still were the voter participation numbers for communities of color and young people. Just 16% of eligible Latino voters and 18% of eligible Asian-American voters made it to the polls in 2018. Among youths, only 9% participated — a concerning lack of engagement. 

While official turnout numbers for Tuesday’s primary elections won’t be known for weeks, lower numbers than 2018’s primary are expected — possibly near record-low turnout. This pattern is deeply troubling. It means:

  • A few voters are determining the whole state’s priorities and top issues, as well as which candidates will appear on the general election ballot. 
  • Many local nonpartisan contests for offices, such as district attorney and sheriff, are being decided by a small elite.
  • Large segments of California’s population — most notably, people of color, youths and other traditionally marginalized groups who are less likely to vote — remain greatly underrepresented. While turnout is higher in general elections, these groups remain significantly underrepresented.

Equally worrisome for our democracy is the fact that low voter turnout in primary elections has become the norm. We need more voter education and outreach. Historically, however, California has allocated very little funding to voter education.

In the 2020 general and 2021 recall elections, lawmakers did allocate tens of millions of dollars to the secretary of state to educate voters statewide on how to vote safely during the pandemic. If we want to improve voter turnout in primaries, this level of funding needs to become the norm, not the exception.

Research conducted by the center I direct has shown significant racial and age participation disparities in elections. Why? Many eligible voters don’t know how to vote or where to vote, and, most significantly, don’t feel voting makes a difference to their lives.

In a 2020 study of eligible voters, more than a quarter of those surveyed stated that they did not know or were unsure about where to find information about in-person voting locations. This is particularly unsettling, as about a third of Californians said that they preferred to cast their ballot in person, with greater percentages of youth (45%), Asian-American (31.4%), Latino (34.2%), and Black (24%) voters preferring that method, compared with non-Hispanic whites (19.6%).

The Center for Inclusive Democracy also found that two-thirds of eligible voters were unaware of new voting options made available in 2020, such as new voting centers, community ballot dropboxes, early voting availability and important details about mail-in ballots.

Voter education is needed to combat the rampant election misinformation that has become pervasive in California as well as other states. This phenomenon has greatly eroded trust and confidence in elections, making the need for widely available and reliable election information and materials more urgent. 

We need to provide local and state election officials with the resources, funding and staff they need to counter mis- and disinformation and empower voters to cast informed ballots.

If we are to have a truly representative democracy, state lawmakers need to fund voter education and outreach on an ongoing basis. With the 2022 general election just months away, and a 2024 presidential election shaping up already, there is no time to waste. Accepting the status quo won’t preserve our democracy.


Mindy Romero previously has written about tracking election equity, changes in voter behavior and how to build trust in the election process.

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