In summary

California’s decision to mail a ballot to every registered voter resulted in record ballots cast in the general election — but it was poor and diverse communities that fueled the increases.

California’s poor and diverse communities fueled the state’s record number of voters in November, with ballots cast increasing as much as 42% in Orange County’s poor neighborhoods, an analysis of final voting data shows.

Huge increases in voter registration and turnout swept through all sorts of California neighborhoods — rich and poor; highly educated and blue collar; ethnically diverse and homogenous — according to a Votebeat analysis of state and local voting data informed by census data.  

Regardless of neighborhood, political and community groups point to one overriding reason for November’s high participation: the state’s decision to mail ballots to every registered voter because of the pandemic.

“I really did see a difference that mail ballots made,” said Pam Whalen, outreach director for the Dolores Huerta Foundation in Bakersfield. Infrequent voters are often intimidated by voting, but if they get a ballot in the mail, “they can stay, they can talk to their family, they can talk to us,” she said, and are more likely to vote.

All told, Californians cast a record 17.8 million ballots in the general election, a hefty 22%, or 3.2 million, above the last presidential election — a remarkable increase given the state’s population grew by less than 2% from 2016 through 2020.

Some counties notched significantly larger turnout increases.

Among the state’s 12 most populous counties, the number of ballots cast increased the most in Riverside (32%), Fresno (27%), San Bernardino (27%) and Sacramento (27%) counties.

Those figures come from the California Secretary of State, which late last week said all counties reported no more outstanding ballots. The numbers may change slightly when the state publishes its official Statement of Vote, due Friday.

‘Galvanizing election,’ easier registration at play

So what’s behind the increases? A lot of factors are at play on top of mailed ballots, said community groups that worked to encourage people to vote.

“It was a galvanizing election for people across the political spectrum,” said Olivia Seideman, civic engagement coordinator for Fresno-based Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability.

The group reached out to voters in Fresno — most of them newly registered voters and infrequent voters, many of them bilingual — to ask them to vote.

“I think it’s very likely that our efforts helped increase turnout in Fresno County in raw terms,” Seideman said.

“It was a galvanizing election for people across the political spectrum.”

Olivia Seideman, Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability

The group contacted nearly 6,866 voters by phone, and about 3,963 voted, she said. Of those, 2,347 were under age 30 and half of them voted. “The fact that half of these voters actually turned out is, in my opinion, a success,” she said.

Pablo Rodriguez, executive director of Communities for a New California, said Fresno County’s increased vote is likely due to automatic voter registration when getting a driver’s license; pre-voter registration at the DMV for 16- and 17-year-olds that takes effect when they reach 18; same day registration when polls are open; and that every voter received a mail ballot.

When Communities for a New California urges people to vote, more people end up casting ballots when every voter is mailed a ballot, he said.

Sharp rise in registered voters

Before this year, the number of registered voters in California had never risen by more than two million between consecutive presidential elections, state data show.

Yet between 2016 and 2020, the number of registered voters in the state rose by about 2.6 million, or 14%. That percentage was even higher in certain counties. 

Among the 12 most populous counties, voter registration increased the most from 2016 to 2020 in San Bernardino (24%), Riverside (22%), and San Diego (18%) counties. Those figures reflect registration totals 15 days before the election and do not include same-day voter registration, so they likely are even higher.

Bryan Watkins, deputy executive director of the California Republican Party, attributed Republican wins in the inland empire counties of San Bernardino and Riverside to increases in voter registration that have helped maintain GOP registration leads.

“A big reason they were successful is because we have strong voter registration programs there,” he said. The state Republican Party pays a “county bounty” to local party organizations for registering voters.

Turnout surpasses Obama’s 2008 election

The percentage of registered voters who cast ballots — a common way of measuring voter turnout — rose from about 75% in 2016 to almost 81% in 2020.

A higher percentage of registered voters in California cast ballots in 2020 than during any election since 1976, with this year’s turnout just slightly higher than during the 2008 election of Barack Obama.

Among large counties, voter turnout increased the most from 2016 to 2020 in Sacramento (8 percentage points), Fresno (7.8), and Los Angeles (7.2) counties. Those figures are calculated using registration totals 15 days before the election and do not include same-day voter registration.

A Votebeat analysis that matched voting precinct and census tract data in California’s 12 most populous counties found that the increases in voter participation were broad — participation went up by a lot, just about everywhere. 

‘A lot at stake’ in poor neighborhoods

The number of ballots cast rose 25% from 2016 to 2020 in areas with a high proportion of residents living in poverty, compared to an increase of 23% in areas with few poor residents, according to the analysis.

Some of the strongest gains in poverty-stricken areas came in Orange (42%), Riverside (40%) and Sacramento (36%) counties. 

“There was a major push to get people to vote, particularly young people and communities of color,” said Tere Flores Onofre, director of organizing for Sacramento ACT, a social justice advocacy group. “We did a big push through our congregations. There’s a lot at stake for people who are low income and people of color.”

Voter registration grew by 14% in high-poverty areas between 2016 and 2020, compared to 16% growth in low-poverty areas.

“We got a lot of new voters and first-time voters,” said Helen Jones, community organizer for Dignity and Power Now, a Los Angeles-based organization that helps incarcerated people and their families. “I think this is just a time that everybody understands that a vote matters.”

Poverty-stricken areas continued to see lower turnout overall, however. About 69% of registered voters in poor areas cast ballots in November, up from 63% in 2016. In relatively affluent areas, 87% of registered voters cast ballots, up from 81% in 2016.

Still, “there seems to be a lot more buy-in, excitement, about voting,” Onofre said.

“We got a lot of new voters and first-time voters. I think this is just a time that everybody understands that a vote matters.”

Helen Jones, community organizer for Dignity and Power Now

Census data show education is closely tied to income and poverty — areas with few highly-educated residents tend to also have a lot of poverty. As such, voter participation trends broken down by education are similar to trends based on poverty.

Ballots cast rose 24% from 2016 to 2020 in areas where few residents have a bachelor’s degree, compared to an increase of 19% in areas with many college graduates.

Some of the strongest gains in those areas came in Sacramento (30%), Orange (26%) and San Bernardino (26%) counties, the Votebeat analysis showed. 

Voter registration grew by 15% in areas where few residents have a college degree between 2016 and 2020, compared to 11% growth in areas with lots of college grads.

Areas with few college graduates continued to see lower turnout overall, with about 68% of registered voters casting ballots in November, up from 63% in 2016. In areas with many college grads, 87% of registered voters cast ballots, up from 81% in 2016.

‘Unconventional’ outreach to Latinos

The number of ballots cast rose 23% from 2016 to 2020 in areas with a high proportion of residents of color, compared to an increase of 18% in areas that are predominantly white.

Among the state’s most populous 12 counties, some in Southern California saw even higher percentages of ballots cast in communities of color, including San Bernardino (32%), Orange (28%), Fresno (24%) and Los Angeles (24%). 

“I almost think we were in the perfect storm,” said Michael Gomez Daly, executive director of Inland Empire United, which reached out to Latino and Black communities to get infrequent voters to vote in the election. “Everybody was at home because of COVID. Everybody got a ballot. And we had just come off of the census.”

For the census, Inland Empire United coordinated 35 community groups that contacted hard-to-reach communities. Those hired for phone banks were highly skilled at making connections because they had worked to get out voters for the 2018 election, were hired for the census, then went directly to the 2020 election, he said.

“We had deep conversations with voters that could last ten minutes,” he said.

Voter registration grew by 13% in areas with a high proportion of residents of color between 2016 and 2020, compared to 11% growth in areas predominantly white.

Yet areas with many residents of color continued to see lower turnout overall. About 70% of registered voters there cast ballots in November, up from 64% in 2016. In predominantly white areas, 87% of registered voters cast ballots, up from 82% in 2016.

Greatest increase among Latinos

The Latino population in California is bigger than all other groups at 39.4%, according to the census. Non-Hispanic whites make up 36.5% of the state’s residents, Asians 16%, and Blacks 6.5%. The remainder are Native Americans and residents of two or more races. 

The sheer size of the population means the Latino vote is powerful — when people vote as they did this fall. The number of ballots cast rose 25% from 2016 to 2020 in areas with a high proportion of Latinos, compared to an increase of 19% in areas with few Latinos.

Some of the strongest gains in areas with many Latinos came in Riverside (33%), San Bernardino (29%) and Orange (28%) counties, the Votebeat analysis found. 

Rodriguez, with Communities for a New California, is not surprised by the increases.

“The Latino voting bloc has been consistently showing up for a number of election cycles now,” he said. “It is sustainable and growing.”

Latinos have been voting in larger numbers since 2010, when gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitmen was defeated, he said.  “Latino voters played a big role in the ‘blue wall’ which prevented the Tea Party wave from reaching California.”

Rodriguez’ group engages with working class families, voters of color and infrequent voters year round, he said.

“We don’t just do get-out-the-vote over two weekends, we talk to hundreds of thousands of people over two years,” he said.

Organizers with the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights in Los Angeles recruited street vendors to pass out voter guides to customers for the 2020 presidential election. Photo courtesy of CHIRLA
Organizers with the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights in Los Angeles recruited street vendors to pass out voter guides to customers for the 2020 presidential election. Photo courtesy of CHIRLA

“In the last two election cycles, Communities for a New California has directly engaged over 200,000 voters via door-to-door canvassing and live phone calls,” he said, adding that visits have been suspended since March due to the pandemic.

Voter registration grew by 16% in areas with a high proportion of Latinos between 2016 and 2020, compared to 11% growth in areas with few Latinos.

The Dolores Huerta Foundation in Bakersfield has a separate arm that  does voter outreach in small, largely Latino communities in the San Joaquin Valley, and Antelope Valley in Los Angeles County. That includes registering people to vote.

“Our goal is to bring people into the process” said Camila Chavez, executive director of the foundation. For the election, “we contacted 6,000 voters in four counties.”

Areas with many Latinos continue to see lower turnout overall. About 70% of registered voters in heavily Latino areas cast ballots in November, up from 65% in 2016. In areas with few Latinos, 87% of registered voters cast ballots, up from 81% in 2016.

“We tried some new, unconventional ways that we hadn’t tried before to reach out to the Latino community,” said Karen Diaz, electoral field manager for the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles.

They took printed voter guides to street vendors to give to their customers. A secretary of state staff member appeared on their weekly Facebook Live show. Diaz said the organization also recruited media personalities such as telenovela star Kate del Castillo and others to do online and radio specials. Topics included how to vote, that every voter would get a mail ballot, and that regular voters did not have to update their voter registration, she said.

With 30 call center operators and more than 2,200 volunteers, the organization helped contact 215,440 voters from the northern tip of California down to the state’s southern border towns.

“I know it’s a lot but I feel like it’s still not enough,” Diaz said.

Asians, Blacks vote in greater numbers

While California communities with significant Black and Asian/Pacific Islander populations showed a substantial increase in ballots cast and voter registration this election, neither demographic group made higher gains than other California voters, the analysis found. 

For instance, the number of ballots cast rose 25% from 2016 to 2020 in areas with a high proportion of Blacks, the same as in areas with few Blacks. In areas with a high proportion of Asians and Pacific Islanders, the  number of ballots cast rose 25% from 2016 to 2020, compared to an increase of 25% in areas with few Asians and Pacific Islanders.

And areas with many Blacks continued to see lower turnout overall. About 75% of registered voters in areas with many Blacks cast ballots in November, up from 69% in 2016. In areas with few Blacks, 83% of registered voters cast ballots, up from 77% in 2016.

In contrast, areas with many Asians and Pacific Islanders continued to see higher turnout overall. About 82% of registered voters in those areas cast ballots in November, up from 76% in 2016. In areas with few Asians and Pacific Islanders, 73% of registered voters cast ballots, up from 68% in 2016.

In Orange County, the local Republican Party has made a point to reach out to new citizens, including Asian Americans.

“We are always at every naturalization ceremony,” said Randall Avila, executive director of the Orange County Republican Party. “We are there with a voter registration booth.” The local party has had success connecting with Asian Americans, he said.

In response to an inquiry, the California Democratic Party said in a statement, it “will continue to work in every corner of the state to grow the number of registered voters in California.”

Votebeat reporter Michael Lozano contributed to this report.

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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Phillip Reese

Phillip Reese is a data journalist, an assistant professor of journalism at Sacramento State and a reporter for The Sacramento Bee.

Lewis Griswold

Lewis is a Votebeat reporter covering election integrity. He lives in Visalia in the San Joaquin Valley. For 22 years, he was a reporter at The Fresno Bee covering agriculture, water, environment, police,...