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Are we seeing all the benefits of Election Reforms?

by | Mar 15

The 2022 election cycle looked, on paper, very similar to the 2014 election cycle. A gubernatorial election, with a Democratic incumbent, and statewide elections that weren’t exactly nailbiters – no Republican challengers came within arms-length of a Democratic incumbent in any of these races. The only thing that seemed to provide some voter enthusiasm was Proposition 1, the ballot measure to enshrine abortion access in the state constitution, and a handful of local competitive races, such as the Mayoral race in Los Angeles.

Despite the similar election cycle, raw voter turnout dramatically eclipsed turnout in that 2014 election. Much of this has to do with the increased voter registration, but beyond that we had a higher share of the registered voters casting ballots.

As long time PDI clients know, statewide, the state’s rate of registration has skyrocketed, largely due to the change in Motor Voter laws and creation of an automatic voter registration system championed by Padilla. These grew the total number of voters from 17.8 million in 2014 to 22 million in 2022 – a whopping 25% increase. And turnout grew by twice that, from under 7.5 million votes cast in 2014 to over 11 million in 2022.

Among young voters, this increase was even greater. The registration of voters aged 18-34 ballooned from 4.8 million to 6.5 million, and their raw voter turnout more than doubled, from 900k in 2014 to 1.95 million in 2022. Importantly, the rate of increased turnout for young people was greater than the rate of increase for other age groups, resulting in their share of all votes cast increasing from 12% of votes in 2014 to 18% in 2022. That’s a 6-point bump, or a 50% growth relative to all other age groups. The increased share of total votes cast is the real measure, as it shows that campaigns now have to campaign more to the needs of younger voters.

For Latinos we see something a bit different. A massive increase in registration – from 4 million in 2014 to 6 million in 2022, and commensurate increase in raw turnout, from 1.1 million to 2 million. However, the share of increase in votes cast relative to non-Latino portions of the electorate was not as great. They went from 15% of votes cast in 2014 to 19% in 2022. This 4-point increase is only a 26% increase – and almost all of this came from younger Latino voters whose turnout doubled while older Latino turnout seems to have stalled.

In some counties, like Los Angeles, we see almost no increase in Latino share of votes cast from 2014-2022, and even drops in electoral impact of older Latinos.

It seems impossible, but in the City of LA (which is nearly half-Latino), the last competitive mayoral race in 2013 saw 93,000 votes cast by Latinos, making them 23% of votes cast in that election. Fast forward to 2022, the next competitive mayoral election, and 220,000 Latinos cast ballots, but still representing just 23% of votes cast.

This means that all these reforms, including the move to having the LA municipal elections concurrent with the statewide calendar, had the intended impact of increasing the total votes cast (growing it from 400,000 to 950,000 – a more than doubling of votes), but didn’t raise the share of voters that were Latino, and definitely failed to increase their relative share of electoral power.

African Americans have also seen a lower rates of improvement in turnout, while Asians have seemingly benefited more from the by-mail voting structure than other ethnic subgroups.

This all needs more attention and research as we look toward 2024 and future California elections. What California has done in advancing election reforms should be lauded, but without attention we could find that it fails to meet its potential to close the turnout gaps that have been endemic in the state and appear to persist for some groups.

For PDI clients who, beyond wanting to win elections, also believe strongly in the idea of a healthy democracy with full participation, this should be a message that more needs to be done to bring along those groups who have been historically underrepresented in our elections.