A poll worker standing behind a group of voters filling out their ballots Photo Credit: Anne Wernikoff/CalMatters

Boosting Voter Participation: Countdown to November

Ramping up our efforts to improve access for California's most marginalized voters

The implementation of the Voter's Choice Act (VCA) and continued support of civic engagement tables are promising areas of focus for us as we ramp up our efforts to support a thriving democracy.

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The turnout for the March primary in California was historically low. If we weren’t already on high alert about the health of our democracy, then the primary election should be a wake-up call and a reminder that we need to do more—a lot more—to get Californians to the polls in November.  

We may not be a presidential battleground state, but what happens in California this fall will play a critical role in deciding control of Congress. California voters will also face a potentially once-in-a-generation opportunity to fill an open U.S. Senate seat. And there is plenty more that California voters will be deciding this year. For example, a state ballot measure in November could make it much more difficult to raise revenues for government services. And reforms that the Haas, Jr. Fund’s grantee partners have worked on, like independent redistricting in Los Angeles and non-citizen voting in Santa Ana, will also be on the ballot.  

With so much on the line, the Haas, Jr. Fund has been ramping up our support for grantees’ nonpartisan efforts to educate voters, increase turnout, and strengthen democratic institutions. In fact, we recently signed an All by April commitment led by the Democracy Fund to get philanthropic resources out the door as soon as possible this year so nonprofits have what they need as they prepare for a busy election cycle. We are hoping many more funders will join us in this commitment.  

We will have more to share later this year about how our grantee partners are working to get out the vote and ensure a fair and smooth election. Right now, I want to lift up two other focus areas for the Fund’s Democracy program in this pivotal election year.

Delivering on the Promise of California’s Voters Choice Act

The Voter’s Choice Act (VCA) is a major, but surprisingly not well known or understood, reform in how Californians vote. In fact, when I have conversations with many Californians, they’re often unaware that the way they vote has shifted so dramatically in the last few years.  

The VCA was passed in 2016 as an optional reform for California counties. Those counties that “opt-in” shift away from the traditional neighborhood polling site model of elections to a new “vote center” model. Counties are allowed to dramatically reduce the number of in-person voting sites on Election Day—by around 85%—and instead offer vote centers for in-person voting beginning 10 days before Election Day. The model relies heavily on mail-in voting, too. Research to evaluate the impact of VCA found that it increased turnout by about three percentage points in the 2018 general election and by 4% in the primaries.  

Use of the VCA model has steadily grown since then. This year, half the state’s counties representing 77% of eligible voters will be VCA counties. In 2023, the Haas, Jr. Fund convened a diverse group of organizations focused on voter engagement to take a deeper look at the impact of VCA. Their key finding: while the law creates an important opportunity to broaden participation in elections, it has not had a measurable impact in closing voter participation gaps. In fact, those gaps widened for Latino and Asian American voters in VCA counties. Lack of funding, especially for voter outreach and education, was cited by elections officials and advocates as a key reason for these growing gaps.

We think we can help county election officials be more creative in reaching out to their diverse voters. That’s why Haas Jr. is funding experiments in San Mateo and Yolo Counties in partnership with the Silicon Valley and Yolo Community Foundations and the two counties’ elections offices. Our focus is on getting more funding to groups closest to voters to do nonpartisan education and outreach about why, where, and how to vote.

If the work in these counties is successful, we hope to find more partners and expand this approach to more counties. We are also hopeful it can be a model for the state to provide funds for community-based voter education and outreach as a strategy for reversing low turnout and closing participation gaps. We will share more as this work continues.

Boosting Civic and Voter Engagement in Key Areas

Another strategy we’re focused on this year is supporting civic engagement tables to build power in underrepresented communities across California. Over the past decade, Haas Jr. has helped to jumpstart these tables that bring together allied grassroots groups that have shared goals to use their collective voice to make them a reality. By coordinating their fundraising and increasing collaboration, they can build larger-scale voter mobilization programs with the ability to reach many more voters than they could individually.  

Unlike short-term policy or voter turnout campaigns, civic engagement tables work together year in and year out, which allows them to deepen their partnerships, develop community leaders, and identify longer-term shared goals, as well as respond and mobilize quickly in response to new challenges. This makes tables not just great investments in an election year, but every year, as they seek to strengthen democracy by getting our state’s most marginalized voters involved and engaged.  

Although civic engagement tables have been successful in regions across the state, California’s Central Coast has not had a civic engagement table as a vehicle for collective action and power building. Despite being known for its picturesque beaches, wealthy celebrity residents, and tourist attractions, data shows the Central Coast is also a place with wide racial income and education gaps between residents of color and white residents, and wide gaps in voter participation as well.  

That’s why in 2021, Haas Jr. began working with the nonprofit Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy (CAUSE) to support convening allied organizations to explore the need and potential for a civic engagement table in the Central Coast. The table has since surpassed its initial fundraising goal and aims to launch a coordinated voter engagement effort this year, as well as expand its training for community leaders who want to run for office.

Civic engagement tables exist in many of the state’s populous regions, including swing congressional districts, and they play a critical role this year in reaching voters that typical get-out-the-vote (GOTV) campaigns might overlook. To do their best work, they need support now to plan their fall GOTV programs, which is why Haas Jr. is making our grants to our table partners early this year. 

A “Test and Learn” Approach to Democracy

Over the last few years, Haas Jr. has embraced a responsive and trust-based approach to supporting many of our grantees. The idea is to invest in promising and innovative initiatives and organizations with the goal of helping them move their best ideas to reality. To the extent this work succeeds, we can then support grantee partners to share their lessons learned and help advance similar solutions in other places across California and beyond.  

In our Democracy program investments, we are using this “test and learn” philosophy to identify and help scale solutions to the participation gaps that result in too many communities not having equal power and voice in their communities and government. The 2024 election is a great backdrop for supporting these kinds of solutions, so our democracy more accurately reflects the will of the people.  

We will keep you posted about how this work is going and the lessons we are learning as the year goes on. We hope more funders will join us in these experiments, and in getting necessary resources to groups that are working diligently to make democracy work as early as possible.