Voter Turnout, Mail Ballot Voting and Other Voting Trends

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1 California Opinion Index A digest summarizing California trends in Voter Turnout, Mail Ballot Voting and Voting Trends January 2009 Findings in Brief A record 13.7 million Californians voted in the 2008 presidential election, the largest number of votes ever cast in this or any other state election. This represented a turnout of 79.4% registered voters, the highest since Turnout in California has now risen in each of the past three presidential elections after an almost continuous thirty-two year decline. Accompanying the record number of votes cast in 2008 was a record number of Californians voting by mail. While the growth of mail ballot voting is a long-term trend, its rate of increase has accelerated in recent years. The Secretary of State s official count of over 5.7 million mail ballot voters in the 2008 election is 1.6 million greater than the number cast in 2004 and more than double the 2.7 million cast in the 2000 presidential election. Californians increasing use of mail ballot voting appears to be one of the factors contributing to the state s rebounding voter turnout in recent presidential years. Evidence for this can be found in the higher turnout rates of mail ballot voters compared to other registered voters. In the 2008 election, 84.9% of the estimated 6.7 million registered voters issued a mail ballot cast their vote, nine points higher than the 75.9% turnout among all other registered voters not issued a mail ballot. For the fifth consecutive presidential election, the Democratic candidate carried California. This followed a string of six consecutive GOP victories in the previous twenty-year period Democrat Barack Obama s 61% to 37% victory over Republican John McCain was the largest victory margin for any presidential candidate in this state since The growing success of Democratic presidential candidates in California in recent years has been accompanied by an increasing preference for Democratic candidates over GOP candidates in contests for the House of Representatives. In the 2008 election 63.3% of all votes cast in California for major party candidates in House races were for Democrats, while only 36.7% were cast for Republicans, a twenty-seven percentage point plurality. This is three times the Democratic pluralities observed in California House races earlier this decade. There were a number of demographic differences between voters who cast their ballots by mail in 2008 and those who voted at their local polling precincts. were more likely than precinct voters to reside in the nine-county San Francisco Bay Area or in the Central Valley and were much less likely than precinct voters to live in Los Angeles. One of the differences that have long characterized mail ballot voters is their older age. While this was again true in 2008, age differences between mail ballot and precinct voters narrowed from past elections. While precinct voters included a much larger share of Democrats than Republicans, among those voting by mail, the Democrats held only a small edge over the GOP. in 2008 included a larger percentage of conservatives than liberal, while among precinct voters the reverse was true. A larger proportion of mail ballot voters than precinct voters were white non-hispanics and women, while precinct voters included a larger share of Latinos and men. An overwhelming majority (82.6%) of the estimated 6.7 million mail ballots issued in the 2008 election were to permanent mail s. The explosive growth in the number of permanent mail ballot recipients is a main factor behind the accelerated use of mail ballot voting in recent years. At present over 5.5 million Californians, 32.2% of the state s total registered voters, are permanent mail s. This is more than double the 2.7 million Californians who were permanent mail s at the time of the 2004 presidential election. There is considerable variability across counties in the proportion of registered voters who are permanent mail ballot registrants. For example, in the state s largest county, Los Angeles, just 13% of voters are permanent s. In Santa Clara, the state s fourth largest county, 54% of voters have permanent mail ballot status. There are significant demographic differences between permanent mail s and precinct voters. Compared to other registered voters, larger proportions of permanent mail ballot voters are older, white non-hispanic, live in the San Francisco Bay Area or Central Valley and are women. Copyright 2009, Volume 1 by Field Research Corporation. (ISSN )

2 Voter turnout in California presidential election continues upward trend A record 13,743,177 Californians voted in the 2008 presidential election, the largest number of votes ever cast in this or any other state election. This represented a turnout of 79.4% of registered voters and 59.2% of all citizen-eligible adults. The turnout figure of 79.4% is the highest achieved in the last eight presidential elections. The election s participation rate of 59.2% of citizen-eligible adults is the highest rate since Table 1 documents the trend of voter participation in California presidential elections over the past 50 years. The graph shows that during this period voter turnout was highest in the 1960 s. Turnout in California declined over the six presidential elections between 1972 and 1996, with the exception of a slight uptick in However, turnout has rebounded since then and has risen in each of the past three presidential elections. 88.3% 68.8% Table 1 Voter turnout in California presidential elections ( ) 88.4% 66.0% 85.7% 62.3% 82.1% 64.5% 81.5% as % of Registered Voters 77.2% 74.9% 72.8% 57.0% 53.5% 57.3% 59.1% 75.3% as % of Eligible Adults 65.6% 52.5% 54.5% 70.9% 76.0% 79.4% 57.0% 59.2% 57.9% '60 '64 '68 '72 '76 '80 '84 '88 '92' '96 '00 '04 '08 Votes Cast (in millions) Democratic candidates have carried California in each of the past five presidential elections For the fifth consecutive time, the Democratic candidate carried California and its largest in the nation collection of electoral votes. This followed a string of six consecutive GOP victories in the previous twenty-year period Democrat Barack Obama s 61% to 37% margin of victory over Republican John McCain in California was the largest victory margin for any presidential candidate in this state since 1936, when Democrat Franklin Roosevelt trounced Republican Alf Landon 67% to 32%. Table 2 depicts the share of the total votes cast for president in California by party over the past fifty years. Table 2 Trend of votes cast for major party candidates for president in California ( ) Democratic candidate 61.1% 59.1% 57.5% 55.0% 54.4% 53.5% 50.1% 47.8% 49.7% 47.6% 51.1% 52.7% 44.4% 49.6% 48.0% 51.1% 46.0% 44.7% 41.5% 41.7% 40.8% 41.3% 38.2% 37.0% 35.9% 32.6% '60 '64 '68 '72 '76 '80 '84 '88 '92' '96 '00 '04 '08 Republican candidate Note: In the 1992 election 20.6% of the vote was cast for the Reform Party, candidate Ross Perot. 2

3 Growing preference for Democratic candidates in California House races The recent success of Democratic presidential candidates in California has been accompanied by an increasing preference for Democratic candidates in contests for the House of Representatives. In the 2008 election 63.3% of all votes cast statewide for major party candidates in House races were for Democrats, while only 36.7% were cast for Republicans, a twentyseven percentage point plurality. This is three times the Democratic pluralities observed in House races in California earlier this decade. In 2000 the total votes cast for Democratic candidates in House races outnumbered those of GOP candidates by ten percentage points (54.9% to 45.1%). The Democratic advantage declined slightly in 2002 to a seven percentage point plurality, but increased to an eleven percentage point advantage in the 2004 election. Since then, California voter preferences for Democratic candidates for the House of Representatives have widened considerably. In 2006, an election which saw California re-elect Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger as Governor by seventeen percentage points, Democratic candidates running for Congress outpolled Republican candidates by a similarly large seventeen percentage point margin (58.7% to 41.3%). The Democratic plurality over GOP candidates in House elections across the state widened further in 2008 to a 63.3% to 36.7% margin. Table 3 Trend of the aggregate major party votes cast for House of Representatives in California ( ) Table 4 Mail ballot and precinct voting in California s 2008 presidential election 8,020,712 (58.4%) Precinct votes 5,722,465 (41.6%) Mail ballot votes Total votes cast in 2008 = 13,743,177 Source: California Secretary of State, Statement of Vote Mail ballot voting has accelerated in recent elections In the late 1970 s California voting laws were changed to allow any voter the right to cast their vote by mail. Since then, with each passing presidential election, the official number of California voters who vote by mail has increased over fifteen-fold. Over the past two presidential elections the rate of increase has accelerated. The over 5.7 million mail ballots cast in 2008 exceeded by over 1.6 million the record number of 4.1 million cast in % Democratic candidate 55.3% 53.6% 58.7% 63.3% Table 5 compares the total number of votes cast to the official count of mail ballot votes cast in each presidential election in California since % 46.4% 44.6% Republican candidate 41.3% 36.7% Table 5 Comparing total votes cast to mail ballot votes cast in California presidential elections ( ) (figures in thousands) Source: National Journal s Hotline for and Center for the Study of the American Electorate for Total voters 13,743 12,590 A record 5.7 million Californians cast mail ballots in the 2008 presidential election According to the California Secretary of State s official 2008 Statement of Vote, over 5.7 million voters (41.6%) were counted as mail ballot voters, while about 8 million others (58.4%) are counted as precinct voters. 8, , , ,200 1,435 11,374 10,260 1,950 2,078 11,143 2,733 4,105 5,722 % mail 4.5% 6.3% 9.3% 14.1% 17.1% 20.2% 24.5% 32.6% 41.6% 3

4 As mail ballot use surges, precinct voting declines Table 6 documents not only the increasing numbers of Californians choosing to vote by mail in recent presidential elections, but also the downward trend in precinct voting in those elections. Table 6 Changes in the number of precinct and mail ballot voters in California in recent presidential elections +224, , Change in votes cast by method +74,608 +1,372,232 Precinct Mail Precinct Mail Change in votes cast by method Precinct -463,792 +1,617,286 Mail Change in votes cast by method Comparing California s precinct and mail ballot voters in 2008 There were a number of differences between voters who cast their ballots by mail in the 2008 presidential election and those who voted at their local polling precincts. The following is a comparison of precinct voters to mail ballot voters on a number of demographic and regional dimensions. A. Regional Differences A much larger proportion of mail ballot voters than precinct voters in 2008 resided in the nine-county San Francisco Bay Area or in the Central Valley. Over a quarter of the state s mail ballot voters (27%) lived in the Bay Area, compared to 19% of the state s precinct voters. Similarly, 18% of those voting by mail lived in the Central Valley vs. of precinct voters. By contrast, a much smaller proportion of mail ballot voters () than precinct voters (32%) were Los Angeles residents. The gap between the percentage of Los Angeles voters who voted by mail and those voting at their local precincts widened since the 2004 election, as the county s share of the state s precinct vote climbed four points this year, while its share of the mail ballot vote declined three points. Turnout rate of mail ballot recipients higher than for other registered voters Registered voters who received a mail ballot in the 2008 presidential election turned out to vote at a higher rate than other registered voters who did not receive a mail ballot. The official count of 5.7 million mail ballot voters represents an 84.9% turnout of the estimated 6.7 million mail ballots issued. This is nine percentage points greater than the 75.9% turnout rate of all other registered voters not issued a mail ballot. Table 8a 2008 presidential election and percentage point changes in share from 2004 election -3 35% Rest of CA Central Valley 32% LA 19% SF Bay Area Region 41% Rest of CA -3 LA 18% Central Valley 27% SF Bay Area Table 7 Comparing voter turnout among Californians issued a mail ballot to all other registered voters 1,014,148 (15.1%) Votes not cast 5,722,465 (84.9%) Votes cast Voters issued mail ballots = 6,736,613 2,546,766 (24.1%) Votes not cast 8,020,712 (75.9%) Votes cast All other registered voters = 10,567,478 B. Party Registration There continues to be partisan differences between the state s precinct voters and mail ballot voters. as a group include a much larger share of registered Democrats (46%) than Republicans (30%). By contrast, among those voting by mail Democrats held only a small 41% to 37% edge over the GOP. The share of precinct ballot voters who were Republican declined from 2004, while the proportion who were non-partisan increased. The GOP s share of all precinct voters in 2008 (30%) was down five points from the last presidential election. By contrast, the proportion of precinct voters who were registered as non-partisan or with a minor party (24%) increased four points this year. Source: California Secretary of State, Statement of vote and estimates of the California Association of Clerks and Election Officials. 4

5 Table 8b 2008 presidential election and percentage point changes in share from 2004 election -5 24% Nonpartisan/ 30% Republican 46% Democrat Party Registration % Nonpartisan/ other 41% Democrat 37% Republican Table 8d 2008 presidential election and percentage point changes in share from 2004 election +2 20% % 65 or older 19% % Age -4 34% 65 or older 19% % C. Political Ideology in 2008 included a larger percentage of conservatives (33%) than liberals (25%). Among precinct voters the reverse was true, with liberals outnumbering conservatives 33% to 30%. Compared to 2004, the proportion of California voters describing themselves as liberal in politics increased this year among both precinct and mail ballot voters in Table 8c 2008 presidential election and percentage point changes in share from 2004 election Political Ideology E. Race/Ethnicity A somewhat larger proportion of mail ballot voters in 2008 were white non-hispanics (70%) than was the case among precinct voters (65%). Conversely, precinct voters included a larger share of Latinos (23%) than mail ballot voters (15%). Table 8e 2008 presidential election and percentage point changes in share from 2004 election +3 23% Latino -3 12% Black/ Asian/ 65% White non- Hispanic Race/Ethnicty % Latino 0 15% Black/ Asian/ 70% White non- Hispanic +5 33% Liberal 30% Conservative -1 25% Liberal 33% Conservative 37% Moderate -4 42% Moderate F. Gender in 2008 included a slightly larger proportion of women (54%) than did precinct voters (51%). D. Age One of the differences that have long distinguished mail ballot voters from precinct voters in California is that mail ballot voters have tended to be older than precinct voters. While this was again true in the 2008 election, the gap between these two types of voters narrowed this year. For example, while 53% of mail ballot voters in California in 2008 were age 50 or older, this proportion was down six points from what its share was in Similarly, while a 57% majority of precinct voters were under the age of fifty in 2008, this was six points lower than the share of voters under age fifty in the 2004 presidential election. Table 8f 2008 presidential election and percentage point changes in share from 2004 election Gender 51% 54% 49% 46% Female Female +2 Male -1 Male 5

6 Nearly one in three California registered voters are now permanent mail s One of the factors underlying the recent surge in mail ballots in recent California elections relates to the huge growth in the number of registered voters who have now signed up to permanently receive their voting materials by mail. According to estimates compiled by the California Association of Clerks and Election Officials, slightly more than 5.5 million or 32.2% of the state s total 17.3 million registered voters are now permanent mail ballot registrants. Table 9 Share of California registered voters who are permanent mail ballot recipients (2008) s comprise the lion s share of all mail ballots issued in 2008 According to estimates compiled by the California Association of Clerks and Election Officials, more than 6.7 million mail ballots were issued in the 2008 general election. An overwhelming majority of all mail ballots issued (82.6%) were to permanent mail s. Another 12.2% were sent to voters who filled out a request form for a mail ballot specifically for this election, while 5.2% were issued to other types of mail ballot voters. Table 11 ballot voters as percentage of all mail ballots issued in the 2008 election * 349,122 (5.2%) Mail ballot request form 822,386 (12.2%) 11,738,936 (67.8%) All other registered voters Permanent mail ballot recipients 5,565,105 (32.2%) 5,565,105 (82.6%) Permanent mail ballot registrants Total registered voters in California = 17,304,091 Total mail ballots issued in 2008 = 6,736,613 * includes mail ballots requested at county Registrar s offices over the counter, and ballots issued to federal, military and overseas personnel.. Source: estimates of the California Association of Clerks and Election Officials. Source: estimates of the California Association of Clerks and Election Officials. Rapid growth in permanent mail ballot registration In 2001 state law was changed to allow any voter the right to permanently receive their ballots by mail. In the relatively short seven-year period since then, the popularity of this alternative has skyrocketed. At the time of the general election in 2002, a little more than 1.2 million voters had signed up to be permanent mail ballot recipients. That number had increased nearly fivefold to more than 5.5 million at the time of the 2008 presidential election. Table 10 Growth in permanent mail ballot registration status of California voters ( ) 279,207 1,235,133 2,711,649 3,994,465 5,565,105 Share of permanent mail s varies considerably across the state s counties While nearly one in three registered voters statewide (32.2%) now hold permanent mail ballot registration status, there is considerable variability by county. Los Angeles, which is by far the state s largest county, has just 13% of its voters signed up as permanent mail ballot recipients. By contrast, Santa Clara, the state s fourth largest county, has a proportion that is more than four times as large (54%). The proportion of mail s in the other three largest counties ranges from 34% in Orange, to 38% in San Diego to 41% in Alameda. The number of permanent mail s has been growing across all counties, but the rate of growth since the last presidential election varies considerably. For example, in Santa Clara the number of permanent mail ballot voters increased thirty-nine percentage points between 2004 and 2008 from 15% to its current 54% share. By contrast, the rate of increase has been much slower in Los Angeles, where the number of permanent mail ballot voters increased eight percentage points from 5% four years ago to its current 13% level. % of total registered voters 1.8% 8.1% 16.4% 25.4% 32.2% Source: California Secretary of State, California Assn. of Clerks and Election Officials. 6

7 Table 12 Share of registered voters who are permanent mail ballot voter recipients across California s five largest counties and percentage point changes in share from 2004 election ballot recipient 87% +8 13% Los Angeles 66% 34% Orange 4 B. Party Registration There is a relatively narrow four-point Democratic advantage over the GOP among permanent mail ballot voters (42% to 38%). By contrast, the partisan gap is fifteen points among registered voters who are not permanent mail s (44% Democratic vs. Republican). The proportion of permanent mail s who are registered as nonpartisan or with a minor party is somewhat smaller (20%) than their share of other registered voters who do not receive their voting materials by mail (27%). 62% 38% % 54% % 41% +16 Table 13b permanent mail s to all other registered voters San Diego Santa Clara : Change since 2004 in percentage points. Source: California Association of Clerks and Election Officials. Alameda Big differences between permanent mail s and other registrants There are large differences between the demographics of Californians who have chosen to become permanent mail ballot recipients and those who have not. The following tables describe these differences on a number of dimensions. A. Regional Differences As a percentage of the state s total 5.5 million permanent mail s, just 10% live in Los Angeles. This compares to Los Angeles s 32% share of all other registered voters who are not permanent mail s. By contrast, the nine-county San Francisco Bay Area accounts for a much larger share of the state s permanent mail s () than of other registered voters (17%). In addition, compared to all other voters, somewhat larger proportions of permanent mail s live in the Central Valley or other areas of the state outside the state s two largest metropolitan areas. Table 13a permanent mail s to all other registered voters Region 27% Nonpartisan/ Republican 44% Democrat Party Registration C. Political Ideology Field Poll surveys conducted in 2008 show that permanent mail ballot recipients are slightly more conservative in politics than other registered voters in California. Among permanent mail ballot recipients 32% describe themselves as conservative in politics, 44% moderate or middle-ofthe-road and 24% liberal. Among all other registered voters, say they are conservative, 47% are moderate and 24% are liberal. Table 13c permanent mail s to all other registered voters Political Ideology 20% Nonpartisan/ other 42% Democrat 38% Republican s 37% Rest of CA Central Valley 32% LA 17% SF Bay Area 43% Rest of CA 10% LA 18% Central Valley SF Bay Area 24% Liberal 47% Moderate Conservative 24% Liberal 32% Conservative 44% Moderate s s Source: estimates of the California Association of Clerks and Election Officials. 7

8 D. Age Compared to other registered voters in California, a much larger proportion of permanent mail ballot voters are age 65 or older. Nearly three in ten permanent mail ballot voters () are seniors, about twice their proportion among all other registrants (15%). A 58% majority of permanent mail ballot voters are age fifty or older. Conversely, among voters who are not permanent mail s, a majority (58%) are under age 50. Table 13d permanent mail s to all other registered voters Table 13e permanent mail s to all other registered voters 24% Latino 15% Black/ Asian/ 61% White non- Hispanic Race/Ethnicity Latino 12% Black/ Asian/ 74% White non- Hispanic Age 27% % 65 or older 19% % or older % s F. Gender s include a slightly larger proportion of women (56%) than other registered voters (52%). s Table 13f permanent mail s to all other registered voters E. Race/Ethnicity About three in four of the state s permanent mail ballot recipients (74%) are white non-hispanic, significantly greater than the proportion of other registrants who are non-hispanic (61%). Conversely, permanent mail ballot recipients include smaller proportions of Latinos or voters who are Black, Asian or are members of other racial subgroups. Gender 52% Female 48% Male 56% Female 44% Male s About The Field Poll and Field Research Corporation The Field (California) Poll has operated continuously since 1947 as an independent and non-partisan media-sponsored public opinion poll which focuses on the state of California. Through its regularly scheduled statewide surveys, The Field Poll tracks voter preferences in major statewide candidate and proposition election contests, assesses public opinion about elected officials and major issues facing the state, obtains public reaction to political, economic and social events, and covers other special topics of general public interest. Throughout its long history, The Field Poll has earned a reputation as a reliable and authoritative source of public opinion trends in California. News stories quoting The Field Poll appear regularly in national and international media, as well as by California s local newspapers and television stations. References to findings from the poll have appeared in thousands of published works by scholars, political and social writers. The Field Poll is owned and operated by Field Research Corporation, one of the West Coast s oldest and largest marketing and public opinion research organizations. The firm conducts local, regional and national opinion research projects in the public and private sectors. Field Research specializes in full-service research, typically executing all project phases from initial conceptualization and design through data analysis and reporting. Field Research specialists are highly skilled in all aspects of survey research. Areas of proven expertise include research design, sample selection, questionnaire development, data collection, data processing, qualitative and quantitative data analysis, expert testimony in court proceedings, as well as Spanish and Asian language interviewing. High quality data gathering and data management services are also offered on a stand-alone basis. Field Research has a large and well-maintained computer-assisted telephone interviewing facility, full reproduction capabilities for mail surveys, long experience in conducting in-person interviews in malls, health clinics and government service sites, and a state-of-the-art in-house data processing and tabulation center. Field Research is a long-time member of the Council of American Survey Research Organizations (CASRO) and the American Association for Public Opinion Research (AAPOR) and subscribes to their codes of professional standards and ethics. Findings from Field Research surveys have been accepted as evidence in a wide range of legal jurisdictions, including both federal and state appellate courts in California. Field Research Corporation, 601 California Street, Suite 900, San Francisco, CA

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