New research suggests that active voters in California are becoming an endangered species. A combination of demographic shifts, technology changes and electoral reforms is likely causing systemic, low voter participation in the state, which may well persist through the end of the decade. With enough planning and investment, the California Republican Party can swim against the tide, creating a competitive landscape for future statewide victories.
Elections Are Fundamentally Changing
There are numerous causes behind the current wave of low voter turnout elections in California. First, consider that voting is becoming an earlier and more private affair, rather than the singular public event it historically was. Electoral reform laws have made absentee voting easier and simpler to apply for, effectively expanding the voting calendar for the general public. For example, in San Diego County, absentee votes comprised 8% of all ballots cast in the 1982 gubernatorial general election; in the November 2014 election, absentee votes are estimated to be 68-72% of all ballots cast. Studies have shown that despite early predictions, absentee voting has not contributed to higher voter participation. In fact, this past November reached a 30+ year low in voter turnout for a gubernatorial general election.
Partisan motivations are also increasingly less of a voting factor for the overall electorate; the fastest growing segment of new voters is now unaffiliated, Independent voters. This has made a significant impact on registration overall. On October 2000, Decline to State voters comprised 14.36% (2,256,316) of all registered voters in California; today, they comprise 23.29% (4,147,359).
Many of the newly registered voters today are uninitiated and unfamiliar with high-propensity voting behavior. California’s electorate is comprised of a growing percentage of youth, Asians, Latinos, and first-generation Americans. Historically, these have been marginalized voting groups that seldom received contact from political parties and campaigns in the past. Prior studies have also identified Asian and Latino voters as having the lowest voter turnout rates among all ethnic groups.
Passively learning about elections and campaigns is becoming less common with a fragmented media landscape and new political technology. The monopoly that network television held over election coverage and campaign information has given way to the Internet, talk radio, and cable television. The popularity of digital video recorders and online streaming content has allowed many members of the public to avoid campaign television ads altogether.
Voter Microtargeting Is Contributing To Voter Disengagement
Most campaigns now use sophisticated political software that facilitates economical voter “micro-targeting,” avoiding expensive blanket advertising and mass mailers. In microtargeting, voter records can be sorted using dozens of different categories, including demographics, voting behavior, and geography. This data can then be used by campaigns for turnout modeling, or to create targeted lists for robocalls, mailers, and other forms of voter contact (Get Out The Vote). Elections are a race against time, and campaigning is becoming a more filtered, limited conversation with a more targeted audience. Campaigns avoid allocating time and resources on voters that don’t vote, or whose voting records suggest they are unlikely to be persuaded to vote.
However, as noted by UCSD political scientist Thad Kousser in an op-ed this fall to the Los Angeles Times, “voting is habit-forming, but so is sitting out an election.” Voters who miss elections may receive less attention from campaigns in the future, which will lead them to avoid voting altogether. Dr. Solon Barocas of New York University describes this as a “cumulative and compounding effect on political participation,” which emerged when electronic voter files became more widely available in the 1990’s. Political campaigns are unwittingly contributing to voter discrimination and disenfranchisement, which may have lasting negative effects on the health of our democratic process.
Planning for Statewide Success
So, what are the political realities of this phenomenon? It means fewer infrequent voters and voting groups that tend to support Democratic candidates over Republicans. Consider that in the most recent November election, older voters (55 years of age and older) comprised 70% of absentee ballots cast, compared to only 40% of total registration. Ballots cast by Republican voters also made up a larger share of the voting electorate (37%) than their share of registration (28%). When only core high-propensity voters are showing up on Election Day, Republicans have a stronger chance to win. Undoubtedly, low voter participation contributed in part to key legislative wins this November, and made statewide contests closer than they otherwise would be.
The wrong lesson to take from this is “low voter participation is good for Republicans.” On the contrary, GOP voters are just as susceptible to this vicious cycle of non-participation as any other member of the electorate. What’s needed is a new approach to narrowing the voter gap with the Democratic Party.
The San Diego Model
Kousser’s research from the June 2014 election shows that investing in voter contact with infrequent or unlikely voters actually increases their turnout rates in election cycles. This held true for both partisan voters and Decline to State voters. It makes logical sense then for every Republican voter in California to receive routine contact every election cycle from their party. Robocalls are cheap, and mailers, when purchased in larger volumes, can be relatively affordable. Still, not every county party is making the investment in routine voter contact. When done correctly, the payoff can be considerable.
Consider that in the City of San Diego, Republican voters comprise only 26% of city electorate (compared to 30% Decline to State and 39% Democratic), yet have a historically high participation rate. This is in part due to the significant investments made in routine voter contact by the San Diego County Republican Party. Every election cycle, GOP voters receive robocalls from the party, as well as an attractive mailer of endorsed Republican candidates, with key and close races highlighted. Additional mailers and robocalls are sent to voters who cast their ballots late. Outside of elections, the party has an active media program, sending press releases, holding events and giving interviews. There is a constant communication between the party and its members – the party helps build positive brand familiarity and identity, and cultivates loyalty and intensity. While this can’t guarantee citywide victories for the GOP, it does make the political landscape significantly more competitive, especially when it’s needed most.
This past February, Republican Councilmember Kevin Councilmember defeated Democratic Councilmember David Alvarez in the runoff election for San Diego Mayor, 52.89% to 47.11%. Republican voter turnout far exceeded registration in that race, comprising 34% of all ballots cast. Comparatively, Democratic ballots only marginally exceeded registration (41%), while Decline to State ballots were cast in far fewer numbers than registration (21%). Enthusiastic GOP voters were a major component to Faulconer’s victory – and they gave him a fighting chance coming into Election Day.
Statewide party leaders should evaluate the degree to which all 58 county parties do or do not engage in routine voter contact, and the degree to which GOP voters by county participate in elections. Given existing research, there is likely a strong correlation between the two. County parties which do not send robocalls or mailers should be provided assistance to do so, including financial, if necessary. Media training is also key to boosting voter engagement and enthusiasm.
It’s important to remember that Democratic county parties and candidates have the same incentive to micro-target only likely voters and leave large numbers of would-be supporters off their call and mail lists. This is a prime opportunity to engage new and emerging voter groups, particularly Asian and Latino voters, as well as “forgotten” areas of the state, such as far Northern California and the Central Valley. Voter contact should reflect the recipients, without being patronizing. For example, a mailer to an Asian voter household doesn’t need to be bilingual, but featuring a photo of an Asian family is appropriate and provides familiarity through repetition.
Over time, an investment in Republican voters, as well as disenfranchised voter groups will expand the competitive voter landscape for GOP candidates statewide. At the rate of diminishing voter participation, we are likely to reach that point by the end of the decade. Party leaders would be wise to take account of voter contact, and prepare for future election cycles.
Vince Vasquez is the Senior Policy Analyst at the National University System Institute for Policy Research, a think-tank based in San Diego. Vince analyzes economic, demographic and political trends in California.