Experts Say 'Political Deserts' Still Preventing California Voters From Casting Ballots

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Primary election in California
A sign is posted outside a polling station at San Francisco City Hall on June 7, 2022 in San Francisco.  (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

A new UC Berkeley Institute of Government Studies survey of California voters finds that the people who vote regularly in state elections are more likely to be white, highly educated, homeowners, married and considerably older than the state’s population as a whole.

Even though a large majority of voters — 63% — say California has made it easier to vote, many Black, Latino and Asian voters in particular say they feel they need more information to cast an informed ballot.

“California does not have a representative and participatory democracy,” said Jonathan Mehta Stein, executive director of California Common Cause. “It’s not even close.”

Mehta Stein, who helped develop the survey, said “people assume that because there are no horrible voter suppression headlines coming out of California, that everything is perfect here.”

The truth, he said, is that “simply making it easy to vote or easy to register to vote isn’t enough to convince Californians that voting is worthy of their time and investment. That there are some Californians that are disaffected and disillusioned by the state of our democracy, and there’s work to be done to restore their faith.”


Another major factor is whether or not people live in an environment where election information is readily available. Campaigns, Mehta Stein said, make decisions on outreach based on getting the most bang for their buck.

“The way that campaigns are incentivized, they’re going to spend all of their money outreaching to regular voters, and they’re going to spend no money outreaching to the folks who are on the margins of our democracy or who are excluded from our democracy,” he said.

Households without regular voters live in what Mehta Stein calls “political deserts.”

“They get no campaign mail, they get no campaign phone calls. They get no campaign robocalls, text messages,” he said.

While that might sound like a relief to regular voters who are deluged at election time, the result of not having enough information, says pollster Mark DiCamillo, is too often a reluctance to cast a ballot.

“I mean, they’re not paying attention, they’re not interested. They don’t know enough about the issues. They don’t feel qualified enough, I guess, to vote on these issues or candidates because they don’t feel well enough informed,” said DiCamillo.

Mehta Stein said people “who are very low income, who don’t speak English, who are on the wrong side of the digital divide and don’t have access to high-speed Internet, don’t have a computer in the home, or have a past history of involvement in the criminal justice system or a combination of all of those factors” end up on the margins of our democracy and without their voices being heard in elections.

The IGS poll found strong support for the government spending more money to help close these persistent gaps in voting participation. As many as 66% support spending more on nonpartisan voter outreach to encourage participation in elections from a broader range of the electorate, including 84% of Democrats and 66% of no-party-preference or independent voters.

DiCamillo says while turnout is stronger in presidential elections, “it’s on the less well-covered elections, you know, the primary elections and even the midterm elections where the turnout really doesn’t reflect the overall population,” and therefore where more voter outreach is needed.

Mehta Stein believes improving voter turnout will also require increasing the sense that politicians have voters’ interest at heart, rather than their own. “And so we have to think about voting solutions as incorporating redistricting reform, money in politics, ethics and conflict of interest reform and so on,” he says.

Some states and cities, including Oakland, are considering creative approaches to increasing voter turnout. In Seattle, the city is giving four “$25 democracy dollar vouchers” to every adult resident, and they can only be used to donate to a city candidate or a school candidate.

“That effectively turns every household into a potential donor household,” Mehta Stein said. That gives candidates and campaigns an incentive to reach out to these voters, knowing that it could result in a donation and a vote.

“It has shown to have a staggering impact on turnout for low propensity and first-time voters,” Mehta Stein said, with voters who use these “democracy dollars” to support a candidate are almost 12 times more likely to vote than occasional voters who didn’t use the vouchers.

Oakland voters passed a similar plan in 2020, but implementation has been delayed.

The IGS data underscore how much work needs to be done if the electorate is to more closely resemble California’s population, said Marquis Mason, advocacy partnership coordinator with California Environmental Voters.

“If we want to achieve a truly multi-racial democracy, then the most marginalized need to have confidence in their vote and know that their voice is precious and needed,” he said. “California currently puts very little funding into engaging voters and making sure those who have the ability to vote actually do so. Today’s polling results show that Californians believe that must change.”

The Berkeley IGS Poll was conducted between July 20–25, 2023 in Spanish and English. It included 6,164 registered California voters and was done on behalf of the Evelyn and Walter Haas Jr. Fund for a five-part series on democracy.