In summary

To move the needle on voter turnout, these fundamental changes would build trust in our elections and democratic institutions.

By Mindy Romero, Special to CalMatters

Mindy Romero is a political sociologist and director of the Center for Inclusive Democracy at the Price School of Public Policy at the University of Southern California, msromero@usc.edu.

For almost a decade, much has been done in California around election reforms, with measures put in place to help make the election process more accessible and to boost participation among historically underrepresented groups and communities of color.  

From automatic voter registration to same-day voter registration to increasing access to vote-by-mail, our state has taken some significant steps that give hope for a more inclusive and representative electorate. 

But newly released 2020 general election voter turnout numbers from the Center for Inclusive Democracy at USC show that these efforts – while critically important – are still not enough.

First the good news.

Mirroring much of the country, California saw the highest turnout rate of eligible voters in 2020 for any general election in decades. Overall eligible voter turnout was 67.4%. Voter turnout across all populations in the state improved with more Latinos and Asian Americans casting ballots than in any previous California statewide election.

These numbers are a positive step in the right direction. But unfortunately, they don’t tell the complete story. While historically underrepresented groups went to the polls in unprecedented numbers in 2020, so did everybody else.

Time for the bad news.

Voter turnout for Latinos increased to 53% in 2020 compared with 46.4% in 2016. Similarly for Asian Americans, turnout in 2020 increased to 47.7% compared to 38.5% four years prior. However, the gap between the eligible voter turnout rates for Latinos and the total population increased to 14.4 percentage points in 2020, up from a 10.9 percentage point gap in 2016. For Asian Americans, that gap was 19.7 percentage points in 2020, compared to an 18.8 percentage point gap in 2016. We do not yet have comparable data available for Black voters or other voters of color. 

In short, despite all of our reforms, California is not making progress on closing the participation disparities that leave voters of color behind. These patterns also held true for youth voters in 2020. Turnout gaps by race and age remain entrenched in our electoral system. 

What do these turnout gaps tell us about election reforms that California has implemented during the past decade? 

While these actions were needed to provide greater access for many voters, they aren’t enough, even in an election where people went to the polls in unprecedented numbers. The hard truth is that these reforms were only incremental steps – they were aimed at increasing access to the ballot when creating a truly more representative electorate requires working more holistically to build a government that all voters see as worthy of their time, attention and investment. 

To ever come close to eliminating the turnout gaps in California, we need to do more to address the disconnection people feel, especially those from historically underrepresented groups, about elections and the act of voting overall. 

Reforms over the past decade have largely focused on making it easier for people to vote – still critically important to reduce the barriers for participation. But we also need to do more to help people want to vote. 

We need to recognize that many don’t see how the act of voting impacts their lives. Some are outright distrustful that elected officials really serve the interest of their constituents, and many believe that politics is rigged in favor of those with power, access and wealth. This is especially true for voters of color who have been historically marginalized and often experience a lack of representation by their elected officials. Then consider the politically polarized times in which we live and it should not be surprising why many people don’t vote. 

Even regular voters will often quietly confess they vote out of a sense of civic duty or social responsibility but they personally don’t have much faith that their vote will make a difference.  

The bottom line is that, at a minimum, the structure of our electoral system discourages many people – especially people of color – from participation in the political process, while efforts to overtly suppress the vote of many groups continue across the nation.  

Fundamental changes to our political system would help build Americans’ trust in politics and our democratic institutions. For starters, to move the needle on the turnout gap, we need:

  • To reduce the political influence of big money;
  • To increase equitable public outreach by local and state officials;
  • To require transparency of elected officials; 
  • To draw fair election districts in all levels of government, so community-backed candidates have a chance of winning; 
  • To support a media infrastructure, including local and ethnic media, that can hold elected officials accountable and better inform the public; and 
  • To effectively address the spread of misinformation and keep it from undermining democracy.  

In the aftermath of one of the most polarizing elections that the state and country have ever experienced, it’s time to examine where we’ve been and where we go next. 

A democracy is not strong if the people do not truly believe in it. It is not strong if those living in the democracy don’t believe the decisions of elected officials represent the interests of their constituents.  

It’s time to build trust in our electoral process that is earned and engender a deeper connection to why voting matters. It’s time to take leaps not steps if we really hope to have an equitable and accessible election system that serves all Californians. 

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Mindy Romero has also written that the 2020 election shows how deeply divided we are, about voter suppression and rebuilding California’s economy.

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