Eight years ago, only 42% of 17.8 million registered voters bothered to cast ballots in a particularly lackluster California election. It was actually even worse: Because millions of potential voters were unregistered, less than a third of eligible Californians had voted.
When turnout drops in California, two things typically happen: Voter participation plummets among younger voters, Latinos, renters and those with lower education and income levels. Meanwhile, older, affluent and predominantly white voters still participate and thereby effectively make the decisions for the rest of California.
The Public Policy Institute of California reported on the “awful” turnout in 2014 and raised questions about why California was suddenly a low-participation state after previously enjoying higher turnout than the rest of the country.
As a result, then-Secretary of State Alex Padilla and lawmakers began pushing for changes on two fronts: increasing voter registration levels and making voting easier.
The Secretary of State’s Office championed a form of “automatic” voter registration that improved the process of registration through the Department of Motor Vehicles. Soon, all voters’ registrations were updated as they moved, allowing the state to re-register millions of voters. California also implemented same-day registration so voters could register and vote in person on the day of an election.
By-mail voting also got a boost in 2015, when the state began testing a new model of sending ballots to all voters in an election in San Mateo County. That program was expanded to five counties, including Sacramento, in 2018.
When the pandemic hit, California implemented emergency measures to expand these rules to all counties and has since made the by-mail voting system permanent. Changes were made to ensure that mailed ballots were counted — removing postage requirements, counting all ballots provided they were postmarked by Election Day and allowing voters to fix any messy or missing signatures.
These are a lot of voting reforms — the most nationwide. And they were implemented largely within a relatively short period of eight years.
More remarkably, the reforms have worked. The state has seen voter registration grow by over 4 million since 2014, a nearly 25% increase, despite the fact that California has gained little population over the past decade.
Turnout in the latest election — one that, like 2014, lacked competitive statewide elections — was nearly 50% greater than eight years ago. The election goes in the books as a high-participation gubernatorial election, second only to 2018.
But if you were following the news, you might have seen a very different picture. Some reports framed the election as low-turnout and offered little to no praise for the accomplishments of the recent reforms.
The reason? Math. When the media reports turnout, it usually counts ballots cast as a percentage of registered voters. But because the pool of registered voters had ballooned by 4 million, those percentages ended up deflated.
The media could focus on turnout of eligible voters, which was 47% in 2022, up from just 31% in 2014.
To put it into a non-voting context, if you were running a pizzeria and you sold 50% more pizzas, that would be a banner year! And California’s election system had a banner year.
The state can work to increase the number of ballots cast to strengthen the democratic process. But we should recognize the gains the state has made in advancing voter participation and pushing our electorate to more accurately reflect California.
Paul Mitchell is the owner of Political Data, a voter data firm based in Sacramento.