Who Votes, Who Doesn't? The Haves and the Have Nots

 (Michelle Gachet/KQED)

Eighty-two percent of California's adults are eligible to vote, but only half will bother to cast ballots in 2016. And those who do vote will not reflect the state's diversity. That's a key takeaway of California's Exclusive Electorate, a new report from the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) examining voter participation.

The PPIC study found that the half of adults who vote tend to be older, whiter, more affluent and better educated than non-voters, who tend to be younger, Latino, renters and less wealthy than those who cast ballots.

While California's population is 42 percent white and 36 percent Latino, six in 10 California voters are white and only 18 percent are Latino.

The result, PPIC researchers say, is that the "haves" are making important decisions for the "have nots," and in a state that often makes critical public policy decisions at the ballot box, that creates the risk of undermining confidence in elections and government.

For example, PPIC found that when it comes to issues like bridging the gap between rich and poor, seven in 10 Californians who are not registered to vote think the government should do more to help low-income people. For likely voters, a little over 5 in 10 believe government should do more.

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"The divide between voters and non-voters appears to be deep, persistent and difficult to bridge," said Mark Baldassare, PPIC president and CEO. "It will have far-reaching consequences this fall, when issues as important as the minimum wage, school bonds and the death penalty are likely to be on the ballot."

California is taking steps to increase voter participation. There are more than 7 million eligible voters who have not bothered to register and soon, under AB-1461, the California Department of Motor Vehicles will begin automatically registering eligible voters who come into the DMV for a drivers license, unless they deliberately opt out.

But the PPIC report finds that's only part of the battle. Once they're registered they have to be motivated to actually cast a ballot. The key, according to PPIC researchers, is civic engagement.

"When registered voters are asked why they do not always vote, their top reasons are also a lack of interest and time as well as little confidence and trust," the PPIC report said.

"Public and private efforts, including targeted drives to increase civics education, voter registration and voting among underrepresented groups (such as Latino, Asian, low-income, renters and youth communities) could result in more diversity in the electorate."

The lack of voter participation is partly explained by immigration. Immigrants who come from places with military dictatorships or corrupt elections may not trust democracy or the electoral process. In return, they may not become citizens, register to vote or even talk with their children about the importance of civic engagement at home around the kitchen table.

All the more reason, PPIC says, for schools and other public institutions to encourage participation in our democracy.