California is America's most populous state and one of its most diverse, a place that researchers have long suggested is leading the rethinking of what it means to be American.
But not at the ballot box. When it comes to elections, California looks much more homogenous, even predictable. And the change so many have expected -- well, it hasn't happened.
"The electorate isn't as diverse as the population," says Mark Baldassare, president and pollster of the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC).
For years, PPIC has tracked this phenomenon -- the existence of what it calls California's "exclusive electorate" -- and how the voice of the Golden State's fast-growing ethnic communities is diminished on Election Day. So, too, is the relative political strength of young voters and millions of middle-to-low-income residents.
With some exceptions, it's still true that the voters who cast ballots in California are older, whiter and richer than the state as a whole.
The most recent PPIC poll, published just last week, offers new evidence of how potentially robust some political debates could be in California ... if only the pool of likely voters grew to include some new voices.
Colleges Or Debt For Surplus Tax Dollars?
Take the issue of California's currently flush government finances, and whether elected officials -- if they had the flexibility -- should push more dollars into debt repayment or restoring recent cuts to higher education funding.
PPIC found a 17-point advantage among all adults (56 percent to 39 percent) for boosting higher education rather than paying down debt. But among the subset of likely voters, it's a split decision (47 percent to 48 percent, respectively). Peruse the poll results by ethnicity, and you find 56 percent of white Californians surveyed would rather pay down debt; Asians (61 percent), Latinos (71 percent) and black Californians (75 percent) would rather boost funding for higher education.
Examine the opinions of young and old in California on this issue from the new poll, and the gap is even bigger: What older Californians see as a split decision (almost the same split as PPIC found in its sample of likely voters) is a no-brainer among Californians between the ages of 18 and 54. Examine the question by household income and, again, the same split: much stronger support for increased higher education funding for those making up to $80,000 a year, while a split decision among those who earn more than $80,000 a year.
Likely Voters: Less Likely To Like What They See From Government
Again, the fascinating -- and troubling -- part of all of this is how the opinions of likely voters, those who frequently cast ballots in California elections, mirror the views of those who are older, more wealthy, and white.
To wit, a few more findings from the most recent poll:
- White Californians generally believe their state tax burden is higher than it should be, while Latinos mostly see it as about the right amount
- Californians age 55 and older are much more likely to oppose any extension of the income and sales tax increases approved by voters in 2012; younger voters either support an extension (ages 18-34) or are split on the idea (ages 35-54)
- Asked whether high-speed rail is important "for the future quality of life and economic vitality of California," whites (21 percent) seem noticeably more blase than do Latinos (31 percent), Asians (38 percent) and black residents (38 percent)
"When we look across the racial and ethnic communities of California," says PPIC's Baldassare, "there's a strong desire to invest more, a strong belief that we need more for a better future."
And here's where the issue becomes very real: The electorate in California, a place home to more Americans than any other state, has been shrinking of late. 2014 saw the lowest turnout elections on record, with a myriad of reasons being offered, but particularly disturbing apathy among some of these key demographics. Even when measured against overall voter registration, some 6.5 million Californians seem uninterested.
(Those registration numbers could change under a new effort by a San Diego assemblymember and Secretary of State Alex Padilla to follow the lead of Oregon and create automatic voter registration when obtaining a driver's license.)
While no state is likely well served by this kind of schism between its voters and its residents, it seems particularly troubling for California. After all, few states have as robust a system of direct democracy -- laws in California are often enacted by voters, not legislators. And with big decisions on the horizon about education, infrastructure and more, the key question may be whether the deciders on Election Day really reflect the will of the people.