California’s democracy is neither adequately participatory nor representative. Although California has been a majority-minority state since 2000, its democracy does not reflect that demographic reality.

Unequal Voices, Part I, released in June 2016, highlights trends in political participation based on government data between 2004 and 2014. That analysis found significant disparities between whites and people of color in voting rates in presidential, midterm, and local elections. It also found that these gaps persist in most forms of political participation beyond voting, such as contacting public officials, contributing time and/or money to a campaign, attending political meetings, and engaging in consumer activism.

Unequal Voices, Part II shows that racial disparity trends in participation beyond voting continue. Using original telephone survey data from 2016, we analyzed the rates at which Californians contact public officials, contribute money to campaigns, attend public meetings, protest, engage in consumer activism, and sign petitions in person or online. The survey design allowed for closely examining rates of participation within the general adult population (aged 18+), as well as within the millennial (aged 18-34) and Asian American populations.

Key Findings

  • Asian Americans and Latinos are under-represented in most political activities, while whites are overrepresented.
  • There are significant national-origin differences among Asian Americans, with Chinese, Korean, and Hmong Americans tending to participate the least.
  • Attendance at public meetings is one of the few activities in which whites do not participate at the highest rate.
  • Racial disparities in political participation are being reproduced in the millennial generation.
  • Racial disparities are best explained by people of color being less empowered to participate, due to either structural obstacles or poor mobilization by political parties and campaigns, rather than a lack of interest in politics.
  • Participation in civic associations and mobilization by political parties and campaigns can overcome barriers to political participation.

Policy Reforms For Change

Across California, proponents of racial justice and democratic engagement should focus on reforming the participation infrastructure in our state: “the laws, processes, institutions, and associations that support regular opportunities for people to connect with each other, solve problems, make decisions, and celebrate community.”

We provide here some specific reforms that community residents should advocate for and that policymakers should enact in three of the five infrastructure areas.

 Policy Reforms

  1. Legal: Local elected officials should pass local public participation ordinances that institutionalize new forms of democratic engagement in government decision-making.
  2. Governmental: State elected officials should create a statewide public participation program for government officials and staff that supports government efforts to create and implement new forms of democratic engagement in government. B. State and local elected officials should create pilot programs to track and publicly share data on the frequency and quality of representation afforded to constituents of diverse backgrounds.
  3. Educational: School district officials and administrators at the K-12 level, especially those serving large populations of Asian American and Latino students, should incorporate high-quality civic education curriculum into their districts.

Closing the racial gap in voting is imperative to ensuring that California has a healthier and more racially just democracy. However, it is equally important to close the gaps in participationbeyond voting and, more generally, in political empowerment. California’s democracy needs to be enriched in particular by more Asian American and Latino voices. This is especially true in the legislative and administrative arenas, where most public policy decisions are made and all are implemented.

Our state has community organizers, labor leaders, and government officials who have successfully brought an increasing number of Californians of color into policymaking processes. But those efforts must be supplemented with large-scale structural change to combat the structural factors that depress participation among people of color. That change can happen through racial and economic justice advocates joining forces with advocates for good governance and democratic engagement to reform the participation infrastructure in California’s communities.

 Once we have that change, government officials will be more proactive and capable of facilitating productive political participation. Additionally, all Californians will have more meaningful opportunities to engage in governance beyond voting, such as advisory boards, citizens’ juries, and participatory budgeting.

Overall, our democracy will be a beacon for the nation: participatory, representative, and able to deliver public policies that achieve greater racial and economic justice.

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