In summary

Despite election reforms designed to improve turnout in 2020, the gap between white and diverse voters remained significant.

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Raymiro Gomez-Galiano knocked on more than a thousand doors in Santa Clarita for the March primary, urging Latinos and other infrequent voters to turn out.

Just 17, the teen couldn’t even vote yet.

“I made sure to send people out there to vote on my behalf. That’s something that we all have the power to do,” said the teen, a volunteer with the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights based in Los Angeles.

Gomez-Galiano is trying to change the face of who votes in California. A Votebeat analysis of the state’s 12 largest counties found racial gaps in turnout during the recent election, with Latinos in particular trailing behind. In areas with a lot of residents of color, about 70% of registered voters voted. In primarily white areas, 87% of registered voters did so. Despite the lower numbers, diverse communities did see increases from 2016.

“Demographics is not destiny,” said Karla Zombro of the Million Voters Project, a statewide coalition that mobilizes low propensity voters. “When everyone turns out higher, people of color turn out higher, but there still is a big gap.”

Thirty-five states had laws in effect in 2020 that requested or required identification to vote, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Some aggressively purge voters from registration rolls — actions critics say disproportionately affect people of color. California, in contrast, has made it easier to vote. California has no ID requirement, allows same day registration and preregistration as early as age 16. Its relatively new Voter’s Choice Act expanded early voting and vote-by-mail in 15 counties. For the recent election, California joined three other states that responded to the pandemic by mailing a ballot to each voter.

And last week Gov. Gavin Newsom tapped Assemblymember Shirley Weber to become California’s first Black secretary of state, overseeing the state’s elections. Weber called expanded voting rights “one of the causes of my career” and said it will motivate her in the new role.

But for all the well-intended reforms in place in 2020, the turnout gap remained significant. 

“Even though California is so ahead of the curve on voting reforms, why is it totally persistent that the overall makeup of the electorate still doesn’t change?” Zombro said.

‘Some voter suppression’

Advocates place the hurdles in two buckets: disillusionment that one’s vote matters and deeper, structural barriers including inequality and language access.

California is a progressive state with paradoxes, Zombro said. California allows online voter registration, but doesn’t consider the digital divide that disproportionately affects communities of color. Eligible adults are automatically registered to vote when they get a driver’s license, but many people of color use buses.

Voting obstacles add to the list of racial disparities that affect many facets of life: “How COVID affects people, the gap in income. It’s all very structural,” Zombro said.

Research continues to link who votes in California to race, income, and age. The stark disparity was seen within cities like Long Beach during the recent election, Center for Inclusive Democracy data shows.

In Long Beach, registered voter turnout was above 90% within the city’s eastern precincts, in neighborhoods where you can take a gondola cruise passing $3 million dollar homes. Turnout was much lower in the city’s west side where lower income Latinos and Filipinos live — with higher asthma rates — near refineries and freeways clogged by trucks hauling goods to and from the Port of Long Beach, the second-busiest in the country. There, turnout hovered between 50% to 75%. In the north side, occupied by many lower income Black families, turnout was similarly low.

While Asians are generally a high-turnout group, those of southeastern background like Filipinos have historically low turnout, Zombro said. 

“Even though California is so ahead of the curve on voting reforms, why is it totally persistent that the overall makeup of the electorate still doesn’t change?”

Karla Zombro, Million Voters Project

For many voters, one major barrier is language. The federal Voting Rights Act and California election code require linguistically diverse areas to provide language help to voters. Between the two codes, county registrars also must make “reasonable efforts” to recruit bilingual poll workers, translate election materials, and offer translated facsimile ballots. 

The Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Asian Law Caucus monitors polls to see if they are following the law. Its reports continue to show some poll workers don’t know that translated materials exist or where to find them. Although polling locations offer remote language services by video or phone, such services don’t allow people to vote independently, as the state code intends. 

“Indirectly, I do think that there is some voter suppression,” said Karen Diaz, electoral field manager with the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights. Translated materials have at times arrived too late to distribute in the community, she said, and some translations may not be culturally universal.

“I’m Salvadoran and someone from Mexico, Cuba, or a different Spanish-speaking country might not understand my translation of the voting ballot,” Diaz said. 

Winning ‘hearts and minds’

Counties sent mailers updating registered voters on major election changes, voting locations and where to get translation support. But Diaz took many calls from voters unaware of how to vote this election — and California leaders already are looking ahead to continued election reform, including a shift to all vote-by-mail. 

“They just simply don’t know their voting options,” said Diaz. “So even though there might be options for voting early… Nobody’s talking to those voters about their options.”

It falls on advocates to fill the information gap, as candidates don’t make the effort to contact unlikely voters, Diaz said. She’d like to see that change: “Otherwise, we’re gonna see the same people going out to vote.”

“Even though there might be options for voting early… Nobody’s talking to those voters about their options.”

Karen Diaz, Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights

Last year, the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights received grants to have dozens of community members from across Los Angeles County participate in mock elections. The money helped coalition members provide transportation, presentations, food, and childcare.

“This is a luxury that a lot of times our communities don’t have. Until we can do this on a mass scale across the state, we’re still gonna have huge gaps in voter turnout,” Diaz said.

And even that might not do the job. Zombro said sometimes the fight isn’t about education so much as winning over the “hearts and minds” of disillusioned voters. 

Latinos were less likely to believe it “really matters” who wins the presidential election, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey. It also found that 73% of white voters said they were extremely motivated to vote, compared to 63% of Black voters and 54% of Latino voters and Asian voters.

“Our opposition can suppress our vote by convincing us that voting doesn’t matter,” Zombro said.

“A lot of folks for years didn’t believe that their votes would matter,” said Helen Jones of Dignity and Power Now. “This year, people are really seeing it (does matter), because so many people spoke out.”

Boosting turnout and bridging gaps

Latino and Black organizers recruited thousands to help canvass to tighten the racial turnout gap. Fresh from November’s election, Jones  is spending up to six hours a day texting Georgia voters from Los Angeles.

“It shouldn’t be just folks talking about it right around elections,” Jones said. “It should be a conversation all year long.”

The Million Voters Project is made up of 95 California organizations that “saw how our lack of participation was impacting our ability to actually just make good things happen,” Zombro said. Next year’s outreach likely will target about 50,000 parolees, many of them people of color, who regained the right to vote when Californians passed Proposition 17 in November.

“If the electorate looked like the people, then the outcome from our decision-makers might actually really resolve the issues that we’re facing,” Zombro said.

That’s the goal for now 18-year-old Gomez-Galiano. A son of Guatemalan immigrants, Gomez-Galiano texted family and friends to educate them about their choices on the ballot. 

“A lot of them don’t vote,” he said. “They’re too busy focusing on things to survive, focusing on their priorities that are their family, so they don’t have the time.” 

But the youth is persistent. He started the NewColorsProject, providing adult language courses and tutoring students learning English. He hopes one day to be called, “Mr. President.”

“I also have an interest in running for city office, then expanding to state and hopefully nationwide,” Gomez-Galiano said. “I really want to get involved with politics and advocating against social inequalities.”

This coverage is made possible through Votebeat, a nonpartisan reporting project covering local election integrity and voting access. In California, CalMatters is hosting the collaboration with the Fresno Bee, the Long Beach Post and the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.

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Michael Lozano leads CalMatters’ Youth Journalism Initiative assessing the state of California’s journalism education and industry pipeline. He previously covered election administration for CalMatters...