California’s 2014 Voter Turnout Was Even Worse Than You Thought

2014 set new records in low voter turnout for California, both in the primary and the general elections.

2014 set new records in low voter turnout for California, both in the primary and the general elections. (Daniel Sofer/hermosawave.net)

For a state whose political leaders pride themselves on being focused on the future, California’s 2014 elections seem to have decidedly been driven by its past — as in, its older voters.

Or put another way: It was the Year of the Grandparents.

“Not only was the average voter older than the average Californian,” says political data expert Paul Mitchell. “The average voter was older than the average Californian’s parents.”

With the book now closed on 2014’s election season, the unshakable reality of a historically bad year for participatory democracy is now becoming all the more clear.

Mitchell, whose firm analyzes voter data and sells it to political campaigns, says the long-term trend in California is getting worse when it comes to what other researchers have called the state’s “exclusive electorate.”

“These voters that are actually participating in the elections are from a much higher income, older, whiter segment of the California electorate,” he says. “And they are voting on the elected officials and ballot measures that are going to be affecting all Californians.”

Mitchell and others have been closely sifting through the results of the June and November elections, each of which registered historic new lows in overall voter turnout for primary and general elections in California.

Wanted: Young Voters

And most glaring in the research, it seems, is the issue of age. Young voters were almost nowhere to be found: only 8.2 percent of Californians age 18-24 cast a ballot in November.

“I think even folks that work with the data all the time were surprised by just how low that number was,” says Mindy Romero, director of the California Civic Engagement Project at UC Davis.

It was Romero and her team who sifted through the recently completed reports from the secretary of state’s office in search of a clear sense of the age of the electorate.

Voter turnout by age groups in California's November election, as compiled by UC Davis researchers
Turnout among various age groups in California’s November election, as compiled by UC Davis researchers (UC Davis Center for Regional Change)

What they found was that even Californians in their mid-30s and well into adulthood were virtually nonexistent in the 2014 political season.

But it was the youngest voters who really took a pass on participating. Consider the observation of data expert Mitchell, who counted up the raw numbers of ballots they cast.

“In California,” he said, “an 18- or 19-year-old was more likely to be arrested this year than actually vote in one of the statewide elections.”

Ouch.

Part of the problem, says UC Davis’ Romero, is that young voters know the least about the system of voting — from deadlines to register, to request a ballot by mail, and more.

“People say that youth don’t vote,” says Romero. “Well, they’re not being outreached to, and they’re not being pulled into the political process.”

Wanted: Latino Voters

Other subsets of voters, while not missing to that extent, also were underrepresented in the almost 12 million ballots cast in 2014. Most notably, perhaps, may be Latino voters.

“Right now, we’re talking about Latinos being the largest ethnic group in the state,” says voter data expert Mitchell. “They’re not yet the largest ethnic group in the registered voters. And they’re far from the largest ethnic group in people that actually vote.”

In some races, like a closely watched congressional election in the Central Valley last fall, Latino votes could have easily shifted the eventual outcome — if they would had been cast.

Data from California's 2014 general election that shows voter participation by various subgroups.
Data from California’s 2014 general election that show voter participation by various subgroups. (Political Data, Inc.)

Mitchell’s analysis found that only 28 percent of registered Latino voters showed up last November in California — compared with 37 percent turnout of registered Asian-Americans, 32 percent of registered African-Americans and 49 percent of white voters.

Who Can Change The Downward Trend?

While much of the news coverage about California’s abysmal voter turnout in 2014 focused on the fact that there wasn’t much to get excited about, it may also be a function of the way modern campaigns operate.

Candidates and ballot measure strategists increasingly measure their chances of victory based on the pool of likely voters, those who have shown a tendency to show up for elections in years past.

But it’s possible that such an outreach system becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

“Youth get very little contact, real contact, from candidates and campaigns,” says Romero of UC Davis. “And so it generates even less information, less awareness, less connection with the political process.”

And those young Californians, as well as those from the state’s diverse communities, will one day become the older adults. And without the experience of — or sense of importance about — voting, the long-term trend could be toward more, not fewer, tepid elections.

Note: an earlier version of this story mistakenly said the low turnout among young Californians was a percentage of registered voters, when it was actually among all Californians of that age.

  • Jim Knox

    I believe the text still mistakenly refers to the percentage of “registered” Latino and other voters when it shoud say the percentage of “eligble” voters…..

    • Jim: if you’re looking at the chart with ethnic voters, that is — in fact — a percentage of *registered* voters. That chart comes from Paul Mitchell’s firm, and for some reason uses the term “eligible.” His total universe of voters in that chart — 17.7 million — corresponds with the state’s data on registered voters. The actual total number of “eligible” voters (both registered & unregistered) in 2014 in California was 24.2 million. No doubt confusing, made more so by my earlier error. –JM

  • Jim Reilley

    This was certainly exacerbated by the fact you had a 100% non-competitive, top of the ticket Gov election, combined with very few & very uninteresting initiatives. It is not reflective of what you get in a Presidential cycle or even a normal Gov cycle if the race is competitive &/or you have multiple hot initiatives.
    Chicken Little…..the sky is NOT falling.

    • Jim: I think you raise good points. One thing to consider, though: the 2011 decision to remove initiatives from June statewide ballots may forever mean weak turnout in those elections — which, of course, are key to determining which candidates move on to November. You’re right that presidential elections always see an uptick. But gubernatorial elections could suffer in years to come (and this was the first gubernatorial since that 2011 law). Romero and others also believe that when young voters don’t engage in higher numbers while they’re young, they’ll never develop the voting habits of their parents and grandparents. So I think there may be room for both interpretations — with 2014 being an anomaly (as you believe) but also a potentially bad sign for the future. –JM

  • hcat

    People who don’t vote have only themselves to blame.

Author

John Myers

John Myers is Senior Editor of KQED's new California Politics and Government Desk.  A veteran of almost two decades of political coverage, he was KQED's longest serving  statehouse bureau chief and recently was political editor for Sacramento's ABC affiliate, News10 (KXTV). John was moderator of the only 2014 gubernatorial debate, and  was named by The Washington Post to two "Best Of" lists: the 2015 list of top state politics reporters and 2014's list of America's most influential statehouse reporters.

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