In summary

Voters in California are disproportionately older, richer, more educated and whiter than the overall population. Fully automatic voter registration and consistent investments in voter engagement could help California’s political system better reflect its diversity.

Guest Commentary written by

Christopher Wilson

Christopher Wilson is the vice president of operations at PowerPAC. 

James Woodson

James Woodson

James Woodson is executive director of the California Black Power Network.

A recent poll by UC Berkeley’s Institute for Governmental Studies found that “regular voters” in California, or people who voted in five or more of the last seven elections, are disproportionately older, richer, more educated and whiter than California as a whole. In any given election, California’s electorate does not reflect its population, and two-thirds of voters surveyed want the government to do something about it. 

The state has taken some steps to make voter registration easier (online voter registration, same-day registration and the New Motor Voter Act), but there’s a lot more work to do. There are currently 4.7 million eligible but unregistered voters in the state – most of whom are Black, Latino or Asian American and Pacific Islander – the largest unregistered state electorate in the country, and surpasses the population of 24 states.

To achieve any semblance of a democratic process in future elections, California must improve its voter registration system and support community-based organizations that can educate and engage voters, ahead of and in-between elections. 

The Berkeley poll’s demographic findings are consistent with historic barriers to civic participation for Black, immigrant, low-income and minority communities. The government’s complicity in slavery, involuntary medical testing and enabling the prison-to-deportation pipeline has created distrust in our communities, often resulting in a resistance to political participation. Combined with mass incarceration, which has targeted communities of color and even stripped the ability to vote, California has erected significant barriers. They must be undone.

Over 140 grassroots organizations are backing Senate Bill 299, which would establish fully automatic voter registration for eligible voters, a change that’s proven to increase voter participation by underrepresented communities in other states. Automating registration through the Department of Motor Vehicles would allow voter outreach to emphasize on the more important task of getting Black, Latino and AAPI to cast ballots.

California needs to support this work.

And while creating a path toward 100% voter registration is an obvious first step to addressing our unequal history, adequate funding is also needed to effectively diversify voter turnout in California. It’s not surprising that 64% of the poll’s respondents support more funding for community organizations to handle voter outreach since organizations like ours are convincing infrequent voters that their voices matter. Many are translating election information in a dozen languages, on the phone, by mail and in door-to-door outreach.

Historically, California has allocated very little funding for voter education. Only during the pandemic elections in 2020 and 2021 did the state invest tens of millions of dollars to support the Secretary of State’s education work. California’s electorate can’t meaningfully improve their circumstances without this level of consistent investment to course-correct a century of negligence.

In a time when other states are limiting voting access, California has a chance to move in the opposite direction by expanding voting access and engaging communities that have been historically excluded from political power. By ensuring that every eligible Californian is automatically registered to vote and that communities have access to the resources they need to participate in elections, California can become a stronger democracy that better reflects our state’s diversity.

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