Since 2000, California has been a majority-minority state where no racial group holds a numerical majority. Yet California’s democracy does not accurately reflect that demographic reality. Several studies have documented the significant racial disparities that persist in voting in presidential and statewide elections. These studies, however, provide only a partial window into the problem of class and racial inequalities in California’s democracy.

Unequal Voices: California’s Racial Disparities in Political Participation, the first report in a two-part series, broadens public understanding of political participation in California by providing a concise analysis of voting and other forms of participation.

Using voter and civic engagement data collections from 2004 to 2014, we analyze data on voting in presidential, midterm, and local elections, data on voting by mail, as well as data on participation beyond the ballot box – contacting public officials, supporting political campaigns, attending political meetings, protesting, engaging in consumer activism, and discussing politics.

Key Findings

  • Latinos and Asian Americans in California face the greatest inequalities in voting, with lower rates of citizenship and registration as the key drivers of disadvantage
  • Racial disparities are worse in midterm elections than in presidential elections and continue when we move from statewide to local elections
  • Racial gaps persist in most forms of political participation beyond voting, such as contacting public officials, attending political meetings, and engaging in protest and consumer activism
  • Fewer than 1 in 10 blacks, and only about 1 in 20 Asian Americans and Latinos, respectively, had contact with their public official to express their opinions compared to nearly one in six whites
  • 15% of whites had attended a meeting where political issues are discussed compared to participation rates of 11% among blacks, 7% among Asian Americans, and 6% among Latinos
  • Education, income, and homeownership play significant roles in explaining many of these disparities, but racial gaps remain even after accounting for these socioeconomic factors


California has taken significant steps to address problems of low voter registration and turnout over the past five years, but more must be done to address inequities in all forms of political participation. We call on policymakers, community organizers, researchers, and others to, among other things:

Policy Recommendations

  1. Mobilize: Increase and/or initiate outreach to and opportunities for people of color, especially those in low-income communities, to inform policy issues.
  2. Design: Carefully consider the substance and design of social welfare policies, and push to include research-based design features that can stimulate participation.
  3. Innovate: Review and learn from innovative models of participation like the Empowerment Congress and participatory budgeting.


Data Recommendations

  1. Expand: Expand the range of data collected on political and civic participation in regular surveys of California residents.
  2. Be consistent: Collect data on political participation with more regularity.
  3. Collect data at multiple levels: Collect data that can measure the health of California’s democracy at the regional, county, and municipal level.

Given the findings, advocates must address these racial disparities to ensure that California’s democracy remains relevant to, and representative of, the people who live here. Policymaking in Sacramento, in city halls and county governments, and in school districts must begin to listen to, be accountable to, and be shaped by the racially, socioeconomically, and generationally diverse range of people that now make up, not only the electorate, but the whole of California.

The payoff will be worth it. As more and more Californians feel their voices are heard and that they have an impact in the choices that affect their everyday lives, our democracy will be revitalized. New energy and new ideas will flow in from previously marginalized communities. This surge of innovation and sense of common purpose will ensure a brighter future for all Californians.

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