As California voters approach the November election, they are pessimistic and polarized—but in agreement in two areas: they have confidence in local governments and put their faith in the initiative process. Yet, at a time when voters seek to bring government closer to the people, there is a disconnect: millions of Californians do not vote. These are the conclusions of an analysis of the California electorate released earlier this month by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC).
The report, “Improving California’s Democracy,” examines voting trends in state elections to find areas of consensus. On issues as diverse as schools and public safety, voters express more confidence in local than in state government and want more authority shifted to the local level. In contrast to their views on the state and federal governments, voters are less likely to believe that local officials waste a lot of money.
Across party lines, voters agree that the policy decisions they make through the initiative process are better than those made by the governor and legislature. When asked who should make the tough choices about the state budget this year, more than eight in 10 Democrats, Republicans and independents prefer that voters make some of the decisions on spending and taxes.
But low registration rates, low turnout and a demographically skewed electorate point to shortcomings in California’s democracy. Out of 23.8 million adults eligible to vote, 27 percent are not registered. And those who register are distinctly different than those who do not. They are likely to be more educated, more affluent, older and white.
The report analyzed key voter groups in California elections:
The most dramatic change in the electorate since 2000 has been the increase in independent voters. Today, they make up 21 percent of the state’s registered voters—up from 14 percent in 2000. California independents are more likely to lean Democratic than Republican (47% to 22%), but most describe themselves as middle of the road ideologically.
• Democrats and Republicans.
In California, as in the rest of the nation, Democrats and Republicans have become more polarized since 2000. Today, more Democratic voters call themselves liberals (52% today, 46% 2000), and more Republicans call themselves conservatives (70% today, 58% 2000). The partisan divide has also grown on important policy issues such as business regulation, environmental regulation and the perceived costs and benefits of immigrants. Today, Democrats and Republicans have fundamental differences over the role of government. Democrats prefer to pay higher taxes and have a state government that provides more services, while most Republican voters prefer lower taxes and fewer services.
The Latino vote has grown in size, percentage of vote and political significance. Today, Latino voters are 20 percent of the electorate, PPIC surveys find. They have been important in the success of Democratic candidates statewide and have shown strong support for Barack Obama. Immigration is a central concern of Latino voters.
• Young voters.
Young voters were important in the election of Obama in 2008, and their turnout will be closely watched this year. Voters age 18 to 34 make up 27 percent of the electorate. Democrats outpace Republicans by 23 points (45% Democrat, 22% Republican), and 28 percent are independents. Young voters are much more likely to describe themselves as liberal than conservative (41% to 28%). They are more likely than older voters to favor legalization of marijuana and same-sex marriage.
Women make up slightly more than half (51%) of California’s voters. They are much more likely to be registered as Democrats than Republicans (50% to 30%). Gun control is a key issue for women, and they are more in favor of it than are men (58% to 41%). Just 31 percent of registered voters—and only 22 percent of all adults eligible to vote—participated in the June primary, despite the introduction of a “top two” primary system that many hoped would increase turnout.
The PPIC report makes three recommendations to improve California’s democracy:
• Engage emerging groups.
For efforts to register more voters and increase turnout, emerging groups—such as younger voters, independents, and Latinos—are key targets. The state recently initiated online voter registration and passed a same-day registration law. Further engagement efforts could include extending the time and location for voter registration and voting, pre-registering 17-year-olds, and working with U.S. immigration officials and state agencies to offer voter registration forms and links to online registration sites.
• Bridge the knowledge gap.
California’s democracy relies on voters to be lawmakers, yet PPIC surveys show that voters make major policy decisions without knowing basic facts about how the government raises and spends money. Most cannot name the largest area of state spending (K–12 education) or the largest source of state revenue (the personal income tax). The voter pamphlet should be expanded and online nonpartisan information sources made more easily accessible.
• Increase transparency in the initiative process.
While voters strongly support the initiative, they give the process mixed reviews, in part because of the impact of special interests and the complexity of the initiatives themselves.
The identity and motives of initiative proponents and opponents should be made more transparent during the signature-gathering process, in advertising, in disclosures on voter pamphlets and on the ballot itself.
Other reforms—such as legislative reviews that produce ballot compromises and early legal reviews to head off court challenges—could lead to fewer ballot items and less controversy over outcomes.
“Improving California’s democracy is a major challenge,” says Baldassare. “It will require sustained effort by local governments, civic groups, business and labor interests, foundations, nonprofit organizations, and all individuals who care about the state’s future.”
A previous version of this article appeared on ppic.org.