Skip to main content
Open Access Publications from the University of California


The California Journal of Politics and Policy (CJPP) is an online journal of original scholarship, focusing on state and local politics, public policy formation and implementation, especially in the Golden State.

California Journal of Politics and Policy: Special Issue October 2020


How Can We Increase Turnout among Low Propensity Voters?

Abstract. How can we increase voter turnout among low-propensity voters? Researchers and practitioners have found interventions that increase voter turnout, but these interventions tend to increase turnout among individuals already likely to vote, and therefore appear to exacerbate existing inequalities in participation. This project developed and tested an intervention designed to encourage people with a lower prior likelihood of voting into the electorate. First, in summer 2018, we surveyed a diverse sample of voting and non-voting Californians about their political attitudes. We concluded that feeling inadequately informed and feeling inefficacious may contribute to low turnout rates. Based on the results of the survey, we designed messages to address these feelings and tested them in an experiment to increase turnout in two special elections in June 2019 by targeting these sentiments among people with infrequent prior turnout records. Letters with information and encouragement about the voting process did not increase turnout in the subsequent election. We conclude that further work is needed to identify interventions that successfully increase turnout among low-propensity voters.

How Did the Voter’s Choice Act Affect Turnout in 2018?

In its first year of implementation, did the Voter’s Choice Act (VCA) change turnout patterns in the counties – Madera, Napa, Nevada, Sacramento, and San Mateo – that adopted this new reform? How did this reform affect the turnout of groups of Californians – young voters, Latinos, and Asian Americans– who have often participated in elections at lower rates than others? We address these questions by gathering data on turnout rates, voter demographics, and electoral competition from 2002 through the primary and general elections of 2018, comparing trends in the adopting counties to the rest of the state.

How Do Californians Want to Cast their Ballots During the COVID-19 Crisis?

In April 2020, how did Californians of all demographic groups want to cast their ballots during the COVID-19 pandemic, what changes to the electoral process would they support during this critical moment, and how would reforms made in 2020 reshape our state’s electorate in the future? We address these questions by analyzing a statewide survey of a diverse sample of 12,276 eligible voters (adult citizens) conducted April 8-22, 2020.  As a whole, California’s eligible voters plan to vote by mail more than ever before in November 2020. Voting by mail is the method that gives them the most confidence in the integrity of election results, and they are strongly supportive of policies that expand access to voting by mail. The level of support for voting by mail differs across California’s diverse racial and ethnic groups. Consistent with past studies, our survey found that Latino and African-American eligible voters are generally less likely to prefer this method of voting than non-Latino whites and Asian Americans. It will be important to consider the potentially disparate impacts that any election administration changes could bring and to conduct broad outreach efforts. When presented with scientific projections predicting a fall peak in the impact of COVID-19, eligible voters were even more likely to prefer voting by mail and to express concerns about waiting in line or working at a polling place that did not adhere to social distancing protocols. Specifying a set of social distancing guidelines for in-person voting resolved these concerns for many eligible voters of all types.

Messaging Matters: How Information about Underrepresentation Affects the Political Participation of Racial and Ethnic Groups in California

Can racial and ethnic minorities be mobilized to participate in politics at greater rates?  We theorize that mobilization messages providing information about a group’s underrepresentation in government may increase participation among racial/ethnic minorities.  However, responsiveness to such messages should vary depending on individuals’ prior awareness of their group’s underrepresentation. Using a two-wave panel survey that randomly assigned different get out the vote messages, we find that messages highlighting a racial/ethnic group’s underrepresentation in government do not increase Latinos’, Blacks’, or Asians’ likelihood of voting. We also find that such messages can decrease other forms of political participation among Asians and Latinos who were previously unaware of their group’s underrepresentation. These findings indicate that information about underrepresentation can actually demobilize certain segments of the electorate. Thus, practical efforts to boost participation among underrepresented groups should either communicate information about underrepresentation in other ways or provide a different type of message altogether.

The Pandemic in Prison: Implications for California Politics and Policymaking

The effects of COVID-19 across California have been devastating, but the impact of the virus has been particularly acute in the state’s overcrowded prisons and jails.  The epidemic has clear implications for incarcerated individuals and their families, but also for the tens of thousands of Californians employed in the state’s prison system. These workers represent a powerful force in state politics (Myers, 2018; Williams et al., 2020).

Early in the Pandemic, There Was No Partisan Divide over Preferences for Voting by Mail in the 2020 Election

In April, 2020, was there a partisan divide between eligible voters from California’s major parties over whether they preferred to vote in person or through mail ballots in the November election, and what percentage of likely voters from each party said they would not vote if the election were held exclusively through the mail? Did partisans divide over policy proposals about how to conduct this election?  We investigate these questions by analyzing a statewide survey of a diverse sample of 12,276 eligible voters conducted April 8-22, 2020. When we asked eligible voters how they wanted to cast their ballots this November, we found no significant divide between the Republican and Democratic eligible voters. More than half of eligible voters in both parties prefer to cast a ballot by mail, with nearly another two in ten voters preferring to drop off a ballot that has been sent to them in the mail.  Gaps of eight to twelve percentage points emerge between partisans over support for policies that advance voting by mail, though there is still a strong consensus supporting these changes among all partisan affiliations.

Will Concurrent Elections Reshape the Electorate?

In 2015, Governor Jerry Brown signed the California Voter Participation Rights Act (SB 415) into law.  As its title suggests, the bill aimed to increase turnout in local elections by forcing all California jurisdictions to hold elections concurrently with statewide elections (in June or November of even years).  Turnout in local elections is significantly lower than national turnout, averaging only 20% by some estimates (Alford and Lee 1968, Wood 2002, Hajnal and Lewis 2003, Caren 2007, Hajnal 2009).  Scholars have found that election timing is the most important predictor of differences in aggregate turnout rates across cities (Alford and Lee 1968, Anzia 2014, Anzia 2011, Hajnal and Trounstine 2005).  Hajnal and Lewis find that city elections that coincide with presidential elections are associated with a turnout of registered voters 36 percentage points higher than turnout in cities that do not hold elections that coincide with the presidential election (2001, 656). Caren finds that cities holding elections concurrent with the presidential election increase voter turnout by 27% compared to cities that do not (2007, 41).  The logic behind SB 415 is that moving local elections to coincide with national elections will improve electoral participation.