Fully participating in our democracy is more than just voting once or twice a year. It’s also attending public meetings, contacting elected officials and supporting campaigns.
By those standards, there are big, unhealthy gaps between white Californians and the majority of Californians who are nonwhite, according to an important new study that concluded that Latinos and Asian Americans are least likely to get their say beyond the ballot box.
Researchers at the public policy school at the University of California, Riverside, and the Advancement Project, a civil rights advocacy group, analyzed voting and civic engagement data from between 2004 and 2014 to produce what’s billed as the most comprehensive assessment of political participation in California in more than a decade.
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They found that only 5 percent of Latinos, 6 percent of Asian Americans and 9 percent of blacks reported contacting a public official, compared with 16 percent of whites. Only 6 percent of Latinos, 7 percent of Asian Americans and 11 percent of blacks attended a political meeting, while 15 percent of whites did. And just 11 percent of Latinos and Asian Americans supported a politician’s campaign with time or money, compared with 18 percent of blacks and 23 percent of whites.
The report says the racial disparities remain even after accounting for socioeconomic factors including education and income.
The gaps also remain in voting in California. In the 2004, 2008 and 2012 presidential elections, an average of 48 percent of Asian Americans and 51 percent of Latinos voted, compared to 65 percent of blacks and 68 percent of whites.
The disparities, made worse by lower rates of citizenship among Asians and Latinos, are even bigger in non-presidential elections: In 2006, 2010 and 2014, an average of 32 percent of Asian Americans and Latinos voted, compared with 38 percent of blacks and 53 percent of whites.
There’s also a gap in local elections. While 32 percent of whites said they always voted, only 23 percent of blacks, 16 percent of Asian Americans and 14 percent of Latinos did.
The state has taken steps recently to increase and diversify voter registration and turnout, including a new “motor voter” law passed last year to simplify registration through the DMV. The Public Policy Institute of California projects that the new law could add more than 2 million voters the first year and make the electorate look more like the state’s overall population.
More attention must be paid to the other disparities, says the new study. It calls for more civic education programs tailored to “children and adults of color”; more outreach to minority communities, especially poor ones; and more innovative ways to participate other than showing up at meetings. One way is “participatory budgeting,” which the city of Vallejo has done four times since 2013. It has used the process to have residents 16 and older vote for more than 25 projects totaling more than $6.6 million, the city says.
Any and all ideas should be welcome for government in California at all levels to become more representative of all the people. “The payoff will be worth it,” the report concludes. “As more and more Californians feel their voices are heard, our democracy will be revitalized.”
By the numbers
The percentage-point gap between Latino and Asian shares of total residents and of 2014 voters for selected California counties:
- Fresno: Latino -26%, Asian -5%
- Los Angeles: Latino -24%, Asian -5%
- San Joaquin: Latino -22%, Asian -7%
- Orange: Latino -21%, Asian -5%
- San Diego: Latino -20%, Asian -5%
- Sacramento: Latino -12%, Asian -7%
- San Francisco: Latino -7%, Asian -11%
Source: “Unequal Voices: California’s Racial Disparities in Political Participation”