More than half of all California voters who cast a ballot in 2012 did so by mail, not surprising since the state has been trending that way for many years. More interestingly, the California Civic Engagement Project at UC Davis took a closer look at 2012 voter data to try and understand how the vote-by-mail population breaks down along demographic lines.
Researchers found that voters over the age of 55 and Asian voters are much more likely to vote by mail than Latino and younger voters. It’s worth noting that researchers used actual voter records for the analysis, data that do not include information about ethnicity. To break out numbers for Asian and Latino voters, researchers used a process called surname matching, in which names are compared against a dictionary provided by the U.S. Census. Lead author Mindy Romero said surname matching is common in political science when working with actual voter records and is considered to be 94-95 percent accurate.
Since 2004, Latinos have more than doubled their actual use rate of vote-by-mail ballots. However, compared with the entire voting population, only 37 percent of Latinos voted by mail. In contrast, 58 percent of Asian ballots cast in 2012 were vote-by-mail. This information is important as policymakers consider how to best reach out to voters and support their participation in elections.
“We do know that different groups use vote-by-mail at different rates,” Romero said. “And so, when we’re talking about potentially expanding vote-by-mail options, or even limiting polling place options, there could be disparate impacts on some groups, particularly groups that rely on the polls more,” Romero said.
Voters ages 18-23 had the lowest rate of vote-by-mail use of all age groups in 2012, at 39 percent. As with other groups, young voters have increased their use of vote-by-mail ballots, but at a much slower rate than other age groups.
Los Angeles and San Diego were the only counties to have more voters go to the polls than to their mailboxes. In contrast, 90 percent of Napa County voted by mail.
In the San Francisco Bay Area, all populations vote by mail at higher rates than the state as a whole, but the disparities in ethnic and age groups remain. More study needs to be done to understand why these disparities exist, but this demographic breakdown is a good first step, especially because researchers have traditionally focused on poll voters. With more specific information about who votes by mail and who goes to the polls, election officials can better target different populations.