Zyler Hartman of Sacramento was too young to participate, but he closely followed the campaigns of November 2012, especially the debate over Proposition 37, the ballot measure that would have imposed new labeling requirements on genetically engineered foods.
Hartman is 19 now and could vote in next month’s primary election. But taking the first step – registering to vote – “is just the furthest thing from my mind at the moment,” he said last week near Sacramento City College, where he is taking a full load of classes.
When polls close next month, voter turnout will be the main benchmark of Californians’ election engagement. But missing from the calculation will be millions of Californians who could have voted but did not register.
In a chronic phenomenon of under-enfranchisement in the Golden State, there are at least 6.4 million residents who are eligible to vote but were not on the registration rolls as of early April. California’s registration rate is close to last in the United States, and its legions of eligible but unregistered voters make up a disproportionate share of the nationwide total.
Experts say there are multiple reasons for the shortfall, such as residents here moving more often, bureaucratic hurdles and uncompetitive statewide contests that fail to capture the public’s attention. Whatever the causes, the result is the same: an electorate that is whiter, older and wealthier than the state as a whole and a large share of the population disengaged from the laws and representatives chosen in its name.
“It’s a particularly big problem – there’s a big difference between people who vote and the people who don’t vote in California,” said Mark Baldassare, president of the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California.
Getting people to sign up to vote once relied on expensive registration drives and stacks of paper. Since September 2012, though, people can sign up online. And advocates point to other possible strategies to raise registration rates, such as allowing people to register on Election Day, allowing high school students under age 18 to pre-register, and joining a growing multistate network that quickly re-registers people who move. None of those exist in California.
“I don’t think this is a new problem,” David Becker, the director of election initiatives for the Washington, D.C.-based Pew Charitable Trusts, said of the registration gap. “But for the first time, there is a solution to this problem.”
The office of Secretary of State Debra Bowen, who is leaving office this year because of term limits, notes that the state’s official registration rate of 73.2 percent of 23.2 million people eligible is better than the 69.9 percent when she took office after the 2006 election. Bowen has worked to increase voter sign-ups with online registration and other efforts, spokeswoman Shannan Velayas said.
Yet some experts, such as Pew, suspect that the registration total compiled by Bowen’s office includes thousands of people who have died or moved. U.S. census data after the November 2012 election shows more than 8 million eligible-but-unregistered residents in California, an amount larger than all but 13 states and nearly 2 million more than Bowen’s office counts.
Registration rates are even lower for Latinos, Asians and young people in California. Less than 57 percent of Latino residents eligible to vote were registered in November 2012, according to census data. The rate was 58 percent for Asians. Among voters 18 to 23, the rate was 60 percent, according to the California Civic Engagement Project at UC Davis.
“Some people might say that’s the fault of those groups. Certainly there’s always apathy,” said Mindy Romero, the center’s director. A main reason, she said, is that Latino, Asian and young residents make up a disproportionate share of lower-income residents. And research shows that lower-income residents have lower registration and turnout rates, she said.
‘A general malaise’
Experts also point a finger at political campaigns, which tend to focus attention and money on voters most likely to show up. Fewer resources go into mobilizing voters without a track record. That creates a “self-fulfilling prophecy,” said Kim Alexander of the California Voter Foundation.
“People highly engaged get lots of material, phone calls and people knocking on their doors. People who are not registered or (have) not voted lately, no one’s knocking on their door,” she said.
There are exceptions. In November 2012, after a major push by President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign, students and other pro-Obama young people turned out in large numbers and made up the same share of the national vote as in 2008. Young voters played a major role in the victory of Proposition 30, Gov. Jerry Brown’s tax-increase measure.
The Sacramento region includes pockets of lower-than-average registration rates, according to census and registration data. Those include census tracts in and around south Sacramento’s Lemon Hill area and Del Paso neighborhoods, and tracts near Sacramento State and UC Davis. Data shows that the areas are heavily nonwhite and younger, with at least a third of residents living in poverty, according to the state’s Healthcare Atlas.
At Sacramento City College last week, several students said they were not registered to vote and saw no pressing reason to do so.
“Right now, I’m cooped up in my own studies. I know what’s going on affects me, though,” said Simon Nguyen, 19, of Sacramento, who is studying biology.
Valecia Dana, 26, who also is unregistered, said she is more cynical about the democratic process. “I didn’t believe my vote counted. There are a lot of votes that don’t even make it,” said Dana. More recently, Dana said, her main reason for not voting is membership in the Jehovah’s Witnesses, which she said discourages voting.
Fellow students who are registered to vote said they sense that many of their classmates have been turned off by politics.
“It’s a general malaise,” said Loreen Willenberg, 60, of Sacramento, who is studying bioethics. “I think people are disillusioned by the political process.”
There also is confusion. A recent poll by Pew Charitable Trusts found that a third of people think the government automatically updates their registration when they move. And a 2004 survey by the California Voter Foundation found that a quarter of nonvoters agreed with the statement that registering to vote would expose them to jury duty. California is among the states that use voter records as one source of would-be jurors, according to a foundation survey.
VoteCal launching in 2015
In Sacramento County, the registrar’s office sends outreach crews to cultural fairs, high school mock elections and other events. Alice Jarboe, the county’s assistant registrar of voters, said she regularly hears people dismiss the value of voting. “People move, they forget about it,” she said. “They don’t worry about updating their registration.”
In Los Angeles County, an estimated 1.2 million residents are eligible to vote but unregistered. Registrar Dean Logan said the county has put registration kiosks in government offices. “What we should be working on as election administrators is to take the administrative barriers off the table,” he said.
Logan is among the election officials who think California should join the Pew-organized Electronic Registration Information Center. Known as ERIC, it is a partnership of nine states that share registration data to flag residents who move.
Bowen has turned down invitations for California to join. At a Senate committee hearing in March, she said the effort lacked sufficient security protections, a criticism rejected by the effort’s supporters.
“Not having California being part of a really important data exchange ... hurts the other states, and I think it hurts California, too,” Judd Choate, Colorado’s director of elections and ERIC’s chairman, said in March.
Other registration changes, meanwhile, are on hold. In 2012, Brown signed legislation to allow people to register on Election Day. But the measure won’t take effect until after the launch of VoteCal, the state’s long-delayed centralized voter database, which is scheduled to start next year. The same goes for a law to allow 17-year-olds to preregister to vote.
VoteCal will create a one-stop website where people can check their registration status and polling place. California is one of only two states that fail to offer such a tool, according to a Pew study that ranked the state 49th in election management.
Yet some things that would help the state’s registration rate are beyond officials’ control.
Registration rates and turnout are typically much higher in swing states. More than 74 percent of Colorado’s eligible residents and 71.1 percent of Ohio’s were registered to vote in November 2012, for example, compared with 65.5 percent reported for California. Except for raising money, presidential candidates all but ignore California and its 55 reliably Democratic electoral votes.
In state races this year, Brown is poised for easy re-election. Some initiative campaigns seem likely to spend big bucks on TV advertising, but no issue so far has caught fire.
“If I could have a magic wand and make every state have maximum competitiveness, that would probably get us to the 70 percent turnout range,” said Professor Michael P. McDonald, part of the U.S. Election Project at George Mason University.