Report: Reducing Voting Locations 'Discouraged Participation' for California's Black and Latino Voters in 2020

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Dax Strane drops off his mail-in ballot at the Alameda County Registrar of Voters in Oakland on Oct. 27, 2020. Alameda was one of the dozens of counties that consolidated voting locations in 2020.  (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

California's move to reduce the number of in-person voting locations in the 2020 election had an outsize impact on Black and Latino voter turnout, according to a pair of reports released this week.

The analyses come as more counties are moving away from traditional assigned polling places and instead opening fewer, larger vote centers, while also sending every voter a ballot in the mail.

A study from the Public Policy Institute of California found that while the state's universal vote-by-mail law actually decreased the turnout gap between racial and ethnic groups, the simultaneous consolidation of voting locations diminished those gains.

“Overall, California actually saw a more representative electorate in 2020 than in 2016," said PPIC Senior Fellow Eric McGhee, one of the report's authors, noting the impact of the mail-ballot law. "But it wasn’t as good in the counties that did the [voting site] consolidations.”

A separate report from the Center for Inclusive Democracy at the USC Sol Price School of Public Policy found that Black voters in Black-majority census tracts were more likely than the general electorate to vote in person. And Black voters surveyed were most likely not to know about the myriad changes made to the state's voting process during the pandemic.


“I think the findings show that the outreach, that the quality of the outreach, how extensive the outreach is done in counties across the state is absolutely, enormously important, and we know that outreach efforts are chronically underfunded," said Mindy Romero, director of the Center for Inclusive Democracy, who co-authored both studies. "Voters don’t know about all the changes."

California's universal vote-by-mail law, which was implemented in 2020 amid COVID-19 concerns, and subsequently made permanent, had the biggest impact on boosting statewide voter turnout — resulting in historically high participation in the  November 2020 election —  an earlier PPIC study found.

But as county officials struggled to recruit poll workers and find voting locations that could accommodate social distancing, state lawmakers allowed them to open fewer sites if they agreed to offer extended early voting hours.

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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.”