Early Voting In California: An Expert Explains What The Numbers Mean

Voters vote early at the Los Angeles County Registrar/Recorder building in Norwalk on Friday, Oct. 17, 2014. (Photo by Maya Sugarman/KPCC)

Early voting is well underway in California ahead of Tuesday's election, and the ballots returned so far are giving us some clues about who's participating in this year's critical midterm elections.

Turnout's up overall in the state. It's doubled in many of the competitive House districts, compared with June's primary election.

But voter registration is also up in California, due in part to a program launched in April that automatically registers voters at the DMV, unless they opt out.

What happens on Election Day will determine whether key Southern California congressional races will contribute to any change in which party controls the House.

Democrats are hoping for a blue wave of support to help them flip Republican-held districts.

To learn more about early voting in California, we talked to Paul Mitchell, vice president of Political Data Inc., a bipartisan voter data company.

Q: What's happened so far regarding early voting in California?

I think a lot of people who've been paying attention to California elections understand that we've converted a lot of our voting to voting by mail. And the election day has now essentially become an election month.

Statewide, 13 million of the state's 19 million voters actually received a vote-by-mail ballot. So those ballots can be filled out and mailed in or they can be dropped off at precincts or vote centers on Election Day. And that has become kind of the most common mode of voting, is voting by mail.

Q: How have voter registration numbers changed in California?

Traditionally, what happens in California is the voter registration rolls grow and grow in presidential election cycles, and then in gubernatorial election cycles, people just aren't as motivated. Voters kind of fall off the voting rolls, there's not a lot of high rates of registration. So the total number of state voters usually dips in a gubernatorial election cycle and then rises again in a presidential.

This is the first time we've seen where the number of registered voters has continued to grow. And we are very, very close to 20 million registered voters in the state. And, you know, that's a high [number].

Q: Why is that happening?

A lot of the reason why we're at that number is because we've changed the way that we register voters — most Importantly, the way that the DMV does their registration. The DMV process for years has been that when you're at the DMV, they offer you an opportunity to register to vote. And if you want to hang out at the DMV for five extra minutes, you can do it. And you know, you would have a lot of people registering at the DMV. But a lot of people, just out of expediency, would say "no" and leave.

They flipped it, so that now when you're at the DMV, they are going to register you to vote if you're an eligible voter. And if you do not want to register to vote, you have to essentially say "no," and fill out a little thing.

So the easiest path to get out of the DMV quickly is to just give in and say, "Sure, you know, update my voter registration or register me to vote."

And that has resulted in millions of voter registrations, the vast majority of which are simply re-registrations. ... But there still have been, you know, hundreds of thousands of people getting registered to vote who weren't previously registered to vote.

And the real question is ... are they motivated enough to actually vote and turn in their ballot?

We'll see what it means for total turnout.

Q: What are the indications that Democrats will show up in large numbers for this election? Will there be a blue wave?

Well, we definitely can see higher overall turnout in those targeted districts that essentially have become nationalized. In most cases, we're essentially seeing double the turnout that we saw in the primary election, but still not the level of turnout that we saw in, say, the 2016 presidential.

So it's higher than expected for a gubernatorial, not as high as we would expect for [a] presidential [election].

And so in terms of a blue wave, that's the first piece of it is — just overall higher turnout in those key competitive districts.

And the composition of the turnout so far has been what we would expect. It's been more Republican, and it's been older. And the real challenge for Democrats is to see if in the kind of end game of this election cycle, they can get out more of those younger and Democratic and left-leaning independent voters.

Q: What's going on with younger voters in Orange County so far?

What we're seeing is that just as of last weekend, we started to see an uptick in voting for voters in kind of the ages 18- to 45-year-old range. And that uptick was enough essentially to bring down the share of the electorate that was seniors below 50 percent.

And that isn't a lot. But it is a movement that we hadn't seen in the primary. And if over the next few days, the young voters can make a greater share of the electorate, I would consider that more of a sign of this blue wave. Not that all young voters are going to be democratic. But if Democrats are going to win, it's going to be because they get outsized support from young voters.

Q: Any suggestions for people who've already voted but are getting lots of mailers?

When somebody does return a ballot, the county registrars will let the campaigns know who's voted so the voters don't keep getting harassed.

So one little tip for voters is if you want to stop the calls and mailers, you can oftentimes just vote early and a lot of that will subside.


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So the easiest path to get out of the DMV quickly is to just give in and say, "Sure, you know, update my voter registration or register me to vote."

And that has resulted in millions of voter registrations, the vast majority of which are simply re-registrations. ... But there still have been, you know, hundreds of thousands of people getting registered to vote who weren't previously registered to vote.

And the real question is ... are they motivated enough to actually vote and turn in their ballot?

We'll see what it means for total turnout.

Q: What are the indications that Democrats will show up in large numbers for this election? Will there be a blue wave?

Well, we definitely can see higher overall turnout in those targeted districts that essentially have become nationalized. In most cases, we're essentially seeing double the turnout that we saw in the primary election, but still not the level of turnout that we saw in, say, the 2016 presidential.

So it's higher than expected for a gubernatorial, not as high as we would expect for [a] presidential [election].

And so in terms of a blue wave, that's the first piece of it is — just overall higher turnout in those key competitive districts.

And the composition of the turnout so far has been what we would expect. It's been more Republican, and it's been older. And the real challenge for Democrats is to see if in the kind of end game of this election cycle, they can get out more of those younger and Democratic and left-leaning independent voters.

Q: What's going on with younger voters in Orange County so far?

What we're seeing is that just as of last weekend, we started to see an uptick in voting for voters in kind of the ages 18- to 45-year-old range. And that uptick was enough essentially to bring down the share of the electorate that was seniors below 50 percent.

And that isn't a lot. But it is a movement that we hadn't seen in the primary. And if over the next few days, the young voters can make a greater share of the electorate, I would consider that more of a sign of this blue wave. Not that all young voters are going to be democratic. But if Democrats are going to win, it's going to be because they get outsized support from young voters.

Q: Any suggestions for people who've already voted but are getting lots of mailers?

When somebody does return a ballot, the county registrars will let the campaigns know who's voted so the voters don't keep getting harassed.

So one little tip for voters is if you want to stop the calls and mailers, you can oftentimes just vote early and a lot of that will subside.


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