Indivisible Yolo Podcast – Dr. Mindy Romero of the California Civic Engagement Project2018-01-14
Dr Mindy Romero, Director of the California Civic Engagement Project at UC Davis, joins our hosts on the podcast this week. Dr. Romero founded the Civic Engagement project to address a need for more research on civic engagement, particularly voting behavior, and particularly in respect to underrepresented groups, and disparity in both engagement and representation. The CCEP aims to understand why and how groups are underrepresented and disenfranchised, with the goal of aiding in the implementation of solutions to create a more representative democracy.
On CCEP’s website, http://ccep.ucdavis.edu, you can find a whole host of resources and all of CCEP’s publications. There you can find a number of tools, including a mapping tool that visualizes the findings of the Center’s research – down to a neighborhood level. It visualizes participation and voter turnout, and draws correlations between engagement and social, economic, and environmental outcomes.
Currently CCEP is working on projects pertaining to elections, both pre- and post-election. Before an election they look questions around policy and summarize what to expect in the election, and afterward, questions around what happened – who participated, how to make sense of the outcome, what, if anything, would have changed it, and how to increase turnout in the future. Another major focus is election behavior and voting reforms, like online voter registration and California’s new pre-registration program.
Beyond voting, CCEP does research around policy, including a project focused around a new bill called the “Ballot Initiative Transparency Act.” Currently, California does a lot of its legislating through the ballot box – some notable examples include legalizing recreational marijuana, or reforming the appeals process for the death penalty. CCEP is planning to track how this bill will affect the way that Californians vote on ballot initiatives, and if it changes voting behavior in the future.
CCEP also looks at voter disenfranchisement, and one of its current major emphases is the youth vote. Their website will soon host a new study on youth turnout and participation in California’s central valley, particularly focused on Latino youth. They ask why youth engage, what engagement means to them, what opportunities and barriers exist in their communities, and whether what we think of as civic engagement actually matches up with what’s available to young people, and what makes sense in their lives. As is true of any survey, metrics must match and reflect what they aim to study, and it’s not clear that traditional metrics always match or resonate with young people’s experience. The CCEP is interested in examining these metrics in an effort to better study young people’s engagement and motives.
In addition to ongoing projects, CCEP partners with any number of organizations and individuals to address any burning questions and help them better advocate or legislate for Californians. They also partner with dissemination groups in an effort to make sure that the research is heard and understood by as many people as possible. They do briefings at the capital, through the press office at UC Davis, through advocacy organizations and lawmakers offices, and hold talks and conferences throughout the state to help get the word out. That kind of outreach and “aggressive dissemination” is key to making sure the research has an impact – information is only useful if as many people know about it as possible. It’s also key to make sure that it is easy to understand and accessible for anyone who needs it, which is why CCEP’s website is full of data visualization tools and tables, and why all of their research is published there with open access to all. But CCEP knows that it can always do more to make sure its findings reach affected groups, and is constantly looking for education and outreach opportunities.
One of CCEP’s major studies, “As California Goes, So Goes the Nation?” looks at the changing demographics in California, how that’s changed the makeup of voters, and what that means for California and the nation. It’s no surprise that California’s demographics have changed significantly with respect to race, ethnicity, and age. Compared to 1980, a common marker for demographic research, the Latino population has grown from 19% to 39%, and currently is larger than the white population (38%). Asian Americans are currently about 13%, and African Americans are about 6% of California’s population. This means California is a much more diverse state than it was even 40 years ago, but raises questions of how that translates to the electorate – who is participating, who is eligible, and what the outcomes are as a result.
What CCEP has found is that the voting population – those who are eligible and who do vote – does not match up demographically to the makeup of the state. Both people of color and young people are drastically underrepresented in the electorate, and thus in government. Part of the reason CCEP does its research is to better understand why these trends exist, and how to get these demographics engaged and voting.
In an ideal democracy, there would be 100% voter turnout, but currently the U.S. has the lowest voter turnout rate for all established democracies across the world. And that has serious consequences. Policy makers are influenced by their voting base, particularly those who will hold them accountable during elections. When demographics don’t vote, it has a direct effect on what policies lawmakers will pursue, whether because they don’t have the information they need, or for more sinister reasons. Oftentimes, though, lawmakers want more data on their constituents, which is why they will partner with the CCEP.
The study also looks at how California compares to the rest of the nation in terms of demographic shift, and the power the Californians have over the presidential races. The bottom line is that Californian numbers represent a more national trend towards diversification, but illustrate how that doesn’t necessarily translate into better representation in government.
Another major area of research focuses on the youth vote – what kinds of roadblocks exist, in registration and engagement, and the culture around youth vote. There are a number that exist, and many are intentional. Oftentimes, we as a culture don’t want to see young people participate, and certainly don’t actively encourage them to participate. However, after elections, one of the first questions asked is “why don’t young people participate?” It’s easy to blame young people, but in reality, the system and our culture does very little to give any sort of support, encouragement, or education on how to participate. In fact, we often expect young people, when they turn 18, to magically know all the nuts and bolts of voter registration and elections, and also to be motivated to vote.
Even here in California, we have a culture where it is socially acceptable for young people to not participate in the political process. In addition, there are structural barriers that keep young people from voting. Voter registration is tied to an address, when we know that many young people are incredibly mobile, and often move every year or two. So, students at Davis, for example, have to figure out which address to use when they register to vote, which means they may not get their ballot in time, or must remember to re-register every year when they move.
There are also attitudes that discourage young people from voting, and discount their experiences. A commonly held notion is that young people don’t have enough worldly knowledge or experience to vote, and that they should wait until they pay taxes, have stable jobs, and ‘know more,’ before they participate. And this attitude is often internalized by young people – the CCEP often hears how young people don’t feel they know enough, or haven’t experienced enough to feel comfortable voting. This is a form of voter suppression. We have a long history in the U.S. of qualifying the right to vote – making people prove that they are worthy and ‘competent,’ enough to participate. This has taken the form of literacy tests, and poll taxes, but more recently looks like voter I.D. laws, a lack of civics education, and this quiet discouragement of young people.
But even though young people aren’t always voting, that doesn’t mean they aren’t involved. Often, they are volunteering and participating in their local communities, but don’t see how casting a ballot will affect tangible change, particularly when they grew up during a recession, and have witnessed gridlock and government shutdowns. Making the connection between casting a ballot and improving their communities will be key in engaging young people in the political process, as well as acknowledging and valuing the work that young people are already doing in their communities.
In addition to making the connection between voting and policy changes that affect communities, it’s important to impart how impactful every vote is. Particularly in state and local elections, we’ve seen one vote be the deciding factor, and local elections are arguably some of the most important, because they impact how policy will be implemented in a community. Even nationally, CCEP’s research has shown that, in the last presidential election, if more people had voted, we likely would have had a different outcome. As it stands, a little under 60% of eligible voters participated, and only a quarter of them voted for the winning candidate, which was a slightly lower than average year in terms of turnout. Recently, in Alabama, we saw an unexpected candidate win as a result of record levels of turnout by the African American community. Ultimately, every vote matters, even on a scale as large as the national and presidential level.
California is at the forefront of voter engagement policy, having recently enacted online voter registration and voter pre-registration. Online voter registration has changed the way people register to vote, and about 4 million people (about 40% of voters) are using the service – whether to register for the first time, or to re-register. It’s also changing the accuracy of voter information, because the forms don’t allow for incorrect addresses or typos, and there’s no issue with deciphering handwriting.
Despite its positive impacts, there are still groups that are underrepresented in their use of online voter registration – most notably Latinos, low income voters, and foreign born voters. So there is room for improvement in the implementation of the online voter registration system, and outreach to underrepresented communities. Overall, however, the system has been a success in the number of people who are using it, and a number of voter advocacy and registration groups have expressed their appreciation in the ease of registering voters. The Secretary of State is a big proponent of registration efforts, and there were a number of online campaigns – most notably on Facebook – where click through advertisements took eligible voters directly to a registration form. Often, spikes of voter registration occurred around key points in the election, such as super Tuesday, and CCEP infers that people were seeing developments in politics that they did or didn’t like, and were spurred to register to vote. Online voter registration is key in capturing that momentum, because it creates an instant connection, and removes barriers of time and space – it is no longer required to go out and pick up a form, fill it out, and mail or submit it, let alone leave the house.
If you’d like to check out some of the research done by CCEP, their findings are posted on the website: http://ccep.ucdavis.edu. In addition, you can find Dr. Romero’s contact information if you or someone you know is interested in partnering for a study, interning as a researcher, or using some of the data to guide and implement policy.