In summary

Targeted outreach efforts are crucial for reaching first-time, low-propensity and limited-English speaking voters.

By Jonathan Mehta Stein and

Jonathan Mehta Stein is executive director of California Common Cause, jstein@commoncause.org.

Francisco Pedraza, Special to CalMatters

Francisco Pedraza is a professor at UC Riverside, and co-director of the Civic Engagement Group, Center for Social Innovation, fpedraza@ucr.edu.

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California is taking dramatic steps to prepare the state to vote safely during a pandemic. Most notably, every registered California voter will receive a vote-by-mail ballot a month before Election Day, so they can vote from the safety of their home. 

In-person voting options will still be available, though they too will see change. Many counties will for the first time offer consolidated voting sites – fewer, larger sites, open for more days – and ballot drop boxes. 

High-propensity and high-information voters will stay updated on these and other changes and continue turning out to the polls. In contrast, first-time and low-propensity voters may be confused, deterred by the changing environment or unprepared to participate. These voters already have some of the lowest voter turnout rates in the state. 

Thankfully, we have strong insight on how to reach these voters and bring them into our electorate. For low-propensity, limited-English speaking voters in California, the option to cast a ballot by mail is particularly attractive in 2020 because of COVID-related fears about visiting voting sites, but trust in mail voting increases dramatically when they are informed they have access to a new system that allows voters to track their vote-by-mail ballot as it is processed. When public health rules are clear and well-publicized, confidence in in-person voting increases. 

Limited-English speaking voters voiced a desire for translated voting materials and materials that use easy-to-understand visuals, graphics and symbols instead of large amounts of text. They also want demographic and cultural representation. 

Low-propensity voters want to see voters who look like them and settings to which they can relate. And targeted outreach efforts are crucial to reaching low-propensity, limited-English speaking voters, because trusted sources of election information vary by racial/ethnic community and by age.

How do we know all this? 

California Common Cause and the Center for Social Innovation at the University of California, Riverside, recently sat down with seven focus groups, including low-propensity and first-time California voters from Spanish, Tagalog, Mandarin, Vietnamese, Korean, and Hmong language communities, and English-speaking youth, including many first-generation voters. 

With the help of key community partner organizations, we organized these focus group conversations on an accelerated summer timeline, to deliver findings to elections officials and civic engagement organizations that are planning now for voter education and outreach in the upcoming November 2020 election. 

Our findings and recommendations are detailed in the recently released report, “Reaching Low-Propensity Voters in California’s November 2020 Elections: Recommendations from focus group research and community partner engagement.” 

In our research, we learned that low-propensity voters, like many of us, have COVID-19 top of mind. A 49-year-old woman from Fremont in our Tagalog-language focus group asked, “Will polling stations and equipment be sanitized?”

While there is greater enthusiasm for vote-by-mail and ballot drop-off, those wanting to vote in-person are motivated by a need for language assistance and help understanding the ballot. But those voters want reassurance that voting in-person is safe, and say officials should announce and enforce guidelines that include wearing masks and maintaining physical distancing. 

Safety and convenience are the main reasons why many voters are leaning toward the drop box or mail-in options. Still, many are eager to learn more about drop box locations and whether they will be available in their county. Voters from the Chinese, Hmong and Vietnamese focus groups were least aware of California’s plan to distribute a ballot in the mail to every voter.

Despite progressive voting laws, California has deep and persistent voter participation disparities on the basis of race and age. The voters we sat down with are on the wrong side of that divide, but we found they want to participate in 2020 and know that voting impacts their families and their communities. Bringing them into the electorate will require going the extra mile with these recommendations. When we do, we may finally have a representative democracy that reflects the true diversity of California. 

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