Only 16 counties stuck with the traditional model of assigning each voter a polling place without consolidating precincts.
The PPIC study found that the precinct consolidation expanded the turnout gap for Latino and Black voters, especially for Black voters who were not previously registered to vote-by-mail and were therefore not used to having a ballot arrive in their mailbox.
“The in-person places were so varied across the state that people had to get used to that difference," said Astrid Ochoa, a public affairs consultant who advises the Secretary of State's office on changes to election administration. "Just because you’re sending every voter a ballot, there still needs to be a strong emphasis on voter education and outreach for that practice."
Both studies grappled with the difficulty of identifying voters of different racial or ethnic groups, as most voters don't provide that information. Researchers instead analyzed registrant surnames, census block demographics and survey data to determine voter demographics.
More changes to California's voting practices are on the horizon this year, when at least 11 additional counties — including Alameda, Marin and Sonoma — will opt in to California's Voter's Choice Act, which allows for the permanent consolidation of polling places into vote centers, where any voter in the county can cast a ballot and receive voting or language assistance.
The USC report also looked at longer-term trends in voting equity, namely that the turnout gap between Black and white voters in California has grown in recent years, even as the gap between whites and other ethnic groups has shrunk.
James Woodson, executive director of the California Black Power Network, pointed to the long-term effects of gentrification and displacement in disrupting civic participation among Black communities.
“Black residents are being pushed out of traditionally urban hubs into new emerging communities that don’t necessarily have established organizing infrastructure, don’t have groups that are reaching out to engage them around elections," he said.
The USC survey found Black California voters were twice as likely to take public transportation to the polls in 2020, as compared to voters of other racial or ethnic groups.
Organizers say voting disparities could be further exacerbated as more Black voters move to suburban and exurban communities with fewer public transportation options and greater distances between voting locations.
“We’re not in an urban center, a lot of our places are still rural," said Minister Quan Williams, an organizer for the Inland Empire-based Congregations Organized for Prophetic Engagement, or COPE. "Even catching public transportation to a polling place might be challenging, you might have to walk in the street to get there.”
For local election officials, consolidating voting locations helps offset the cost of mailing every voter a ballot. Funding for elections was plentiful in 2020, but there's no guarantee that largess will continue in future years.
But McGhee, from PPIC, said state lawmakers should take the findings as caution that "we need to possibly rethink some of this in-person consolidation, or at least how we do it and maybe how much we do it because of the impacts on equity.”