Although researchers say “overt suppression” tactics have ended in California, historically underrepresented groups still show lower turnout in voting and registration
As the Nov. 3 election approaches, election talk seems to consume every aspect of daily life—ballot boxes dot sidewalks, “I voted” selfies fill social media feeds and advertisements for state propositions stream on TV.
While California is currently seeing the highest voter registration rate since 1940, much work still needs to be done to ensure all individuals have equal opportunities to vote, according to Christina Fletes-Romo, a voting rights attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California. Despite efforts by states to make voting accessible for all, suppression tactics and practices continue to be prevalent today.
“Voter suppression is an effort to prevent people from voting with the goal of manipulating a political outcome and silencing the voice and political power of certain communities,” Fletes-Romo said via email. “The targets of voter suppression are most often Black, Latino, Indigenous and other voter[s] of color, as well as students, and people with disabilities.”
Voter suppression has a long history in the U.S., such as through poll taxes and literacy tests, according to Fletes-Romo. Voter suppression continues to be prevalent today, taking shape both institutionally—through voter ID laws, gerrymandering and felony disenfranchisement—as well as motivationally—through poor education, unequal access to language assistance and rhetorical tactics used to confuse or avert voters.
Many of the barriers present throughout U.S. history stem from a struggle for achieving and maintaining power, according to Ellen Hartigan-O’Connor, a UC Davis associate professor of history and the associate dean of graduate studies in the department of history.
“Your vote is about how your voice is represented,” Hartigan-O’Connor said. “A person’s vote is their power and their demand that their considerations be heard.”
Voting systems in the U.S. were built on intersectional racial and gender hierarchies, explaining many of the barriers present for traditionally underrepresented groups, Hartigan-O’Connor said.
“A more inclusive voting population is a challenge to inherited racial power,” Hartigan-O’Connor said. “The vote is certainly one form of political participation and it’s central to American history. The idea that the vote is how we are represented in our forms of government, and that that representation is a way that we then hand over certain kinds of power to the government.”
The structure of the voting system poses barriers for certain individuals in terms of voter eligibility. In the U.S., only citizens over the age of 18 can vote. Individuals also must be residents of the state in which they are registered to vote in. Undocumented immigrants and those who hold Permanent Resident Cards (green cards) also can’t vote.
Individuals in prison or on parole are also unable to vote in California. Proposition 17, which is on California’s 2020 ballot, proposes granting individuals on parole the right to vote. People in California still have the right to vote while being held in jail, either when awaiting trial or doing time for lower level misdemeanor convictions, according to Benjamin Weber, a UC Davis assistant professor in the department of African American and African studies. This right is taken away, however, for those serving longer felony sentences in state prisons.
“Barriers to voting in jail and felony disenfranchisement laws are part of larger histories and current practices of racist criminalization which disproportionately suppress votes from Black and Brown communities in particular, and people who are lower income in general,” Weber said via email.
Currently, there are about 50,000 Californians on parole who cannot exercise their vote, according to Fletes-Romo. When California’s first state constitution was written in 1849, felony disenfranchisement was included as a tool to suppress the political power of historically-underrepresented groups.
“Because of system[ic] inequalities in the way Black, Brown and other communities of color are policed and disproportionately incarcerated, felony disenfranchisement continues to overwhelmingly impact Californians of color,” Fletes-Romo said via email.
In California, individuals may vote after completing a felony sentence and when they are no longer on parole. The “Restore Your Vote” section of the California Secretary of State website allows individuals with prior felony convictions to get their voting rights back.
“[…] while California still bars people from voting while they are serving a felony sentence or on parole, people can get their right to vote back afterward,” Weber said via email.
Individuals deemed “mentally incompetent” by the judicial system also may not vote in California. For instance, Britney Spears isn’t allowed to vote because she’s in conservatorship, according to the Free Britney movement.
In terms of voter registration, the U.S. is the world’s only established democracy that places the burden of registering on voters themselves, according to Mindy Romero, the director of the Center for Inclusive Democracy at the USC School of Public Policy and a former student and professor at UC Davis. This discourages many from participating, especially young people.
Additionally, because registration is tied to an address, it could disproportionately affect very mobile young people, especially college students, or homeless individuals, Romero said.
“Generally speaking, if you haven’t registered when it gets close to election day or you think you are but you aren’t, you’re out of luck,” Romero said.
In many states, there are additional state laws keeping many individuals from voting. Certain laws create voting disadvantages for historically underrepresented groups, Romero said.
“We know that the way our political system engages with different voter groups serves to encourage or discourage them to participate,” Romero said.
In South Carolina, voters need a witness to sign their ballot; in Texas, only one ballot drop box is allowed per county, even in counties with millions of people; in Missouri, ballots must be notarized in order to be counted; in Georgia, the political parties of candidates are not listed on ballots, according to Valerie Morishige, a voting rights advocate.
In California, Morishige views suppression tactics more as voting barriers faced by historically underrepresented groups, rather than overt suppression like what is seen in other states.
“I feel like suppression [involves] someone actively trying to keep you away from voting, and we know this is happening in other states,” Morisigue said.
California has done a lot of work in the last few years to make it easier to register and vote—including same day voter registration—however, it’s still not widely used, according to Romero.
“We don’t have guards at the gate stopping people,” Romero said. “People generally don’t have to worry about being beat up or paying a poll tax, what we think of [as] overt forms of voter suppression.”
Despite these steps made to increase voting accessibility, voter suppression still exists in California, which is illustrated in voter participation statistics. While California “looks good on paper” with regard to voter suppression, Romero said that the state should be working “above and beyond” to make voting accessible for everyone.
“Everything in the books and in the law makes it sound like we have really accessible voting here in California, but in practice, we just aren’t aren’t doing that well,” Romero said. “In practice, we can do a lot more about getting funding for our local election officials so we are not just doing the bare minimum that’s legally required.”
In addition to the institutional aspect of voter suppression, researchers—like Romero—study the question of what motivates people to vote or not to vote.
“On that motivation question, [California is] doing a really terrible job,” Romero said.
Motivational barriers toward voting largely differ among people on the individual level, Morishige said.
“[People] might be motivated because it’s just not convenient,” Morishige said. “They really also need to have self efficacy around feeling like they’re able to make an informed vote. I think that trips up a lot of people.”
In California, all voters were sent absentee ballots for the 2020 election, however, that does not make voting accessible for all, Morishige said. For example, individuals who may not understand English may not know they can request a ballot in one of 13 different languages depending on the county.
“California has failed to achieve a truly multilingual democracy,” Fletes-Romo said via email. “Language access is absolutely crucial in a state like California that is home to millions of individuals who are limited-English proficient.”
Additionally, those who are visually impaired are not able to use an absentee ballot, Morishige said.
“It’s amazing that we’re all getting absentee ballots but then we forget like there are certain people where that’s still not accessible for them,” Morishige said. “It seems like it’s accessible, but if you really think about it, there are certain groups that are being left out.”
Especially for vulnerable populations, the COVID-19 pandemic has created challenges for those who must go vote in person at a polling place—for language assistance and disability modifications, among other reasons—and many counties have reduced the number of polling stations available.
Resource allocation is important for ensuring that everyone has an equal opportunity to participate. Access to language assistance or audio should be ensured for those with disabilities, Romero said. Additionally, the information provided in different languages on voting websites is not updated as frequently, so those voters might not be reading the most up-to-date information.
Efficiency is also important in ensuring everyone votes. Having enough polling locations is important for those who choose to vote in person, Romero said.
“You want to have something that’s easy and convenient and close by to you, and you want to make sure that they are also staffed at the appropriate levels,” Morishige said.
Historically, some Native American voters on tribal lands may have had to travel long distances to cast their votes. Today, non-profit organizations like The California Native Vote Project combat these inequalities by engaging Native American communities across the state, according to Kathleen Whiteley, a UC Davis assistant professor of Native American history. Additionally, some Native American individuals who live on tribal lands that do not have formal addresses, which are often required for a state-issued ID.
Rhetorical tactics that strive to confuse and avert voters can also be seen as voter suppression, according to Romero. In our current election, these tactics have included the spread of misinformation about mail-in ballots, suggestions of voter fraud, placements of fake ballot boxes in California and threats of voter intimidation at polling places.
“Any kind of conversation around voter fraud I argue is a form of voter suppression because it’s really designed to turn off voters,” Romero said. “In this election, we’re worried about things like voter intimidation at the polls, potentially could happen.”
Historically, education about voting has been poor, which could affect young people’s motivation to register to vote, according to Romero. Young people are disproportionately impacted by not receiving adequate outreach and they sometimes do not hear issues that they care about being discussed in a campaign, which can all contribute to reduced voter motivation.
“We’re not really serving young people very well when it comes to civics education, and giving them the nuts and bolts background and the training and the practice that they need to be confident voters when they turn 18,” Romero said.
Education itself is not sufficient in providing the necessary skills to become an informed voter. Encouragement toward voting, as well, should be taught in schools in order to build excitement in young voters, said Davis Mayor Gloria Partida.
“If you’re not being proactive about educating people or helping people who may need to get into the system and become regular voters, that in itself is a form of not encouraging voting, which is suppression,” Partida said.
In particular, additional barriers are present for youth of color. A 2018 poll by Power California found that youth of color do not receive the same amount of communication about elections. Specifically, youth of color are contacted at lower rates by political campaigns and other outreach groups, according to Fletes-Romo.
Morishige has seen that young people often lack places to find trusted information about voting, in terms of who to vote for or how to turn in their ballot. Sometimes, individuals think they must fill out the whole ballot in order for it to be counted, so they give up when they lack information about who to vote for judges or school boards, for example.
Candidates rarely reach out to people that are not a likely voter as they feel it is not worth the investment of their campaign funds, Romero said. Some individuals may feel like candidates never visit their towns while campaigning, so the candidates do not care about them.
“The fact that our campaigns and candidates do most of the outreach in a given campaign, they’re responsible largely for the turnout patterns that we see, not completely, but in terms of how everybody needs to be reminded to vote,” Romero said.
Others may feel like they have been shut out by the voting system or targeted for voter suppression or gerrymandering, which could influence their motivation to vote. Historically underrepresented groups are often left out of the conversations around the election.
“It disheartens them so much that they don’t think their voice is going to be heard, or they voted in the past for people that have made big promises but then nothing came out of it,” Morishige said. “That just really discourages them, so I think it runs the gamut on why certain individuals don’t vote.
Because some people don’t think their vote matters or lack trust in the government, they feel discouraged from voting. Election officials and community-based organizations play a critical role in voter education and outreach to help build that trust and keep election officials accountable, according to Fletes-Romo.
“Because of the long history of voter suppression in the United States, many people, especially people of color, have valid reasons to feel distrustful,” Fletes-Romo said via email.
The reasons why people vote are not specific to Sacramento and Yolo Counties and decisions not to participate in voting in these counties are largely mirrored throughout the state and country, according to Romero. Romero added that elected officials of Sacramento and Yolo counties are doing a lot to address institutional barriers to voting.
“I wouldn’t call us a hotspot of issues, Sacramento and Yolo [Counties],” Romero said. “But again, if you look at the [voter turnout] numbers, in both counties for young people, it’s still much lower than older age groups. There’s still a lot of work to be done on the turnout aspect.”
Sacramento County adopted the California Voter’s Choice Act in 2016, which worked to modernize elections by providing greater flexibility and convenience for voters including: mailing every voter a ballot, expanding in-person early voting and allowing voters to cast a ballot at any voting center within their county.
According to Partida, the city of Davis works to make voting very accessible. After having lived in Davis for 30 years, Partida said she has always found it easy to vote.
“I always know where my polling station is; it’s just it’s never been an issue for me,” Partida said. “I don’t see any practices in our city that are suppressive.”
In comparison to surrounding cities, Davis has a higher voter turnout rate. In the 2018 election, Davis had a total turnout (both vote-by-mail and precinct) of 51.2%, whereas for the same year the turnout was 35.0% in West Sacramento, 38.0% in Winters and 41.4% in Woodland.
In Yolo County from 2010-2014, 48.8% of voters were classified as white, 31% of voters were Latinx, 13% of voters were Asian, 3.8% were two or more races, 2.3% were Black, 0.5% were Native American, 0.5% were Pacific Islander and 0.2% were classified as other.
“We don’t have a hundred percent turnout and we certainly see significant disparities in turnout by race, ethnicity, age, income, educational status and so forth,” Romero said. “The outcomes are showing us that there are people that have a harder time having a voice at the ballot box.”
In Davis, according to the 2017 State of the City report, relying on the census estimates from 2015, the registered voting pool is 77.4% white. Asian individuals represent 21.7% of the population, however, only 9.8% of registered voters. Latinx individuals represent 13.4% of the population, but only 10.6% of registered voters.
“We tend to be a very engaged group of voters, but again, that is skewed towards certain populations in our community,” Partida said. “I’d like to see more people of color, younger voters come out and vote.”
The Assessor / Clerk-Recorder / Elections department (ACE) in Yolo County reached out to Partida to ensure the city had proper means of registering voters and placing ballot boxes throughout the city.
“We were very happy to commit some of our staff time to that effort because we believe that we should make it as easy for people to vote as possible,” Partida said.
Yolo County Chief Election Official Jesse Salinas also helped Partida provide support and reach out to marginalized communities, mainly historically underrepresented groups “who are not the typical voters.” Partida said the city of Davis was “happy to help.”
In order to engage all voters in Yolo County, more information about voting should go out to Spanish radio and news outlets in Yolo Counties, Partida said. As requested by Partida, the city of Davis sends out press releases about voting and other important issues to these news outlets.
“I think the congregations are really underutilized resources for not just voting, but [also] for other city issues,” Partida said. “Our congregations are increasingly becoming involved in political issues and issues around giving access to all people and I think that that’s really exciting to see as well.”
Across the U.S., young people illustrate low voter turnout percentages, which UC Davis students also fall into. More than two-thirds, or 2 million, of California’s eligible young adults failed to vote in the 2012 general election, according to a UC Davis study.
Helping students understand why voting matters is crucial to motivating more young people to vote, Romero said.
“There’s always a battle with the campus [providing] access to voting for students,” Romero said.
With the 2020 election and most UC Davis classes held remotely, it is easy to feel disconnected from campus, which is typically a place where students can get engaged about elections, Romero said. In other elections, candidates, like Bernie Sanders, have held rallies at UC Davis in hopes to motivate and mobilize voters.
“We’re not seeing that because of COVID, so that is a challenge,” Romero said.
Additionally, many students at UC Davis are not registered to vote in Yolo County, and instead, are registered to vote in their hometowns, Partida said.
“We always have trouble getting students to register in Yolo County and vote in Yolo County,” Partida said. “That’s unfortunate because there’s a lot of issues that pertain to students. We feel that [students] should have a voice in their community.
In 2019, UC Davis enrolled 39,629 students, which was over half of the population of Davis that same year, 69,413. Although, of course, not all of these students live in Davis, most undergraduates and graduates choose to.
“[UC Davis is] a super elite school in a tiny, tiny county, and students [would be] the biggest voting block if people were voting in Yolo [County],” Morishige said. “[Students] are one out of three voters.”
Partida said that Davis students and community members should vote in local, state and nation-wide elections as a way to express what change they want to see.
“It’s a part of democracy; it’s making sure that all voices are represented in our community,” Partida said. “It’s one of the most powerful tools that we have for saying what we want our community to be like.”
Morishige remains hopeful for the future; there are ways to reduce both institutional and motivational voting barriers in our country, she said.
“[Historically underrepresented groups] definitely face barriers and those are things that we can actively try to get rid of in the future,” Morishige said. “Maybe it’s not this election but that’s definitely something that we all have to keep fighting for in the future.”
Although individuals make their own decisions about why and for whom they are voting, increasing conversations about voting will help others feel comfortable and motivated to also participate, Morishige said.
Also making voting feel “fun” and “like a group activity,” helps encourage others to participate, according to Morishige. Putting “I voted” selfies on social media creates constant reminders to others in one’s social network that they should vote. It also provides opportunities for those with questions to know which friends to reach out to because they saw that they voted.
For young people especially, Romero says that “peer to peer contact” is the most powerful way to mobilize and encourage young people to vote. Romero recommends that young people make a voting plan; knowing where, when and how to vote helps reduce confusion.
“Society throws on young people that they’re not qualified; that they’re not ready to vote; that they’re better if they just kind of wait,” Romero said. “Their voice matters.”
Partida agrees with Morishige and said that for all voters, any way to talk with neighbors, friends and family about voting and elections helps normalize conversations about the issue. People can get together and talk about the ballot, propositions and measures.
“Continue to have those conversations with people that you know and ask if there’s any way that you can help,” Partida said. “Maybe you have an elderly neighbor, maybe you have a neighbor who has children who might need some help with registering.”
Even though historically voting has excluded many individuals, Lisa Materson, a UC Davis associate professor of history, explained it is up to the U.S. government to make sure voting is accessible for all. It should not be left to just a few privileged individuals to have their voices heard, Materson said.
“Historically, a few have decided who’s going to be in the party system [and] who’s going to be in government for the majority,” Materson said. “The idea of one person, one vote is the idea that we should all have roughly the same amount of voice, or participation, or political weight in our government. Some people shouldn’t count more than others.”
Providing all individuals equal access to voting—by reducing both institutional and motivational barriers—will allow for officials to be elected, as well as laws, measures and propositions to be passed that represent the desires of the general population, Morishige said. Despite the work done to reduce suppression tactics, Morishige said additional improvement is possible.
“Voting is a right and we really need to make sure that we keep our officials accountable and we keep our local election officials especially […] mindful about how they’re doing this and that they have equity on top of their minds,” Morishige said.
Written by: Margo Rosenbaum — firstname.lastname@example.org