California’s online registration drive draws broader voter base

California’s new online voter-registration system, which premiered last fall, generated some striking results, including that more registrants come from low- and middle-income neighborhoods than expected, says a new University of California, Berkeley, study.

Researchers Lisa García Bedolla, a UC Berkeley associate professor of education and of political science, and researcher Véronica N. Velez, a postdoctoral research fellow at UC Berkeley’s Center for Latino Policy Research, just released their report for the center about California’s entry into online voter registration.

California opened up its voter registration process last fall, and UC Berkeley researchers have found some interesting results.

“Given voters in California are, on average, significantly more affluent than the general population, this study suggests that online voter registration opened up the … process to a wider range of voters in terms of their socioeconomic status,” García Bedolla and Velez reported.

Based on data from each of California’s 58 counties, the state’s online drive that ran from Sept. 19-Oct. 21, 2012, generated 839,297 new registered voters. Some 22.6 percent were Latino, 11.1 percent Asian, and about 59.8 percent white – breakdowns similar to the state’s overall voter registration.

The researchers zeroed in on census tract data for the newly registered voters in San Diego and Alameda counties, two regions with similarly diverse populations but contrasting political tendencies – with San Diego County voters s tending to vote more conservatively than in Alameda County.

In San Diego County, 71 percent of Latino, 57 percent of white and 50 percent of Asian American online registrants lived in areas with medium incomes under $75,000; and in Alameda County. the numbers were 65 percent for Latino registrants, 52 percent for whites and 44 percent for Asian Americans.

García Bedolla said this suggests that, despite the so-called “Digital Divide,” “when we make the process easier, like letting you register after you Google it on your phone, folks participate,”

Some results also are striking and carry enormous potential policy implications, said García Bedolla. They include:

  • Women of color, rather than white women, are driving the gender gap in Democratic party identification among the online registrants.
  • A significant proportion of eligible voters over age 35, particularly white men, registered online.
  • Latina and female Asian American voters were more likely to vote than were Latinos and Asian American men.
  • Only among white registrants and voters is there near gender parity in registration and turnout.

“It is amazing that, with no advertising or support (for the online voter registration), this many people took advantage of (online voter registration),” said Garcia Bedolla, noting that she will conduct additional research to determine if there were active voting advocacy groups operating in communities with spikes in online registration.

Altogether, California has about 18 million registered voters. Last year, it joined 13 other states – including Arizona and South Carolina – that since 2002 have opted to institute online voter registration.