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How CA voters don’t look like their state

This story appeared on Calmatters

Voters cast their ballot at a voting site at the California Museum in downtown Sacramento on June 7, 2022. Photo by Miguel Gutierrez Jr., CalMatters

From CalMatters’ state Capitol reporter Sameea Kamal

California has taken a number of steps over the past decade to make voting easier: Mailing ballots to all registered voters, plus allowing early voting and same-day registration

Yet, the electorate hasn’t shifted to match the state’s growing diversity: Frequent voters are far from representative of the majority of Californians, according to a new poll out Tuesday from the UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies

Of the state’s “regular voters” — the 39% of registered voters who have voted in at least five of the last seven elections: 

  • 71% are 50 or older, and 71% are also white
  • 68% own their home 
  • 59% are married
  • 55% are college graduates

About three in 10 voters who vote infrequently said it was because they did not know enough about the candidates or issues, or weren’t interested. About one in four responded that special interests controlled the outcomes, or that their vote didn’t matter. 

The poll also showed concern about those numbers — and 64% of those who responded supported devoting more state resources to encourage voting participation and outreach to under-represented groups. Black voters, women, Democrats, liberals and college graduates voiced greater support for those efforts. 

A substantial majority of respondents (63%) also said mailing ballots to all registered voters has made voting easier — though Republicans and conservative voters, who have historically been more likely to vote in person, report not being affected.

Kat Calvin, founder of Spread the Vote, a national advocacy group that aims to improve voter turnout, told CalMatters that California’s size and population means voters have a lot on the ballot to digest, and that “the sheer amount of information just terrifies people.” She also noted that older, white homeowners are likely to have more time to study the ballot.

  • Calvin: “We have so many micro-barriers that are in the way of voting all over the country and all over the state.”

As of February, nearly 22 million of 26.7 million eligible voters were registered in California, about 82%. In the November 2022 election, 51% of registered voters turned out, while turnout was 81% in 2020, the last presidential election.

In other voting news: New research from Ballotpedia found that, over the last five years, lawmakers across the U.S. have made it more difficult for citizens to propose and approve ballot measures. 

The study found that, between 2018 and 2023, states approved 42 bills or resolutions that made the initiative, referendum and recall processes more restrictive, such as by increasing signature gathering requirements, filing fees or voter approval thresholds; or banning substantially similar initiatives that were defeated within the prior four years. 

One California bill made the “difficult” list: Assembly Bill 2584, signed into law last year, increases the number of proponents needed to start a recall petition.

On Ballotpedia’s list of laws that made the process easier: AB 698, passed in 2019, which states that a signature on an initiative petition can’t be invalidated because the person used initials instead of their full first or middle name, or both. 

This session, some legislators are approaching election changes in a different way — simplifying language for voters.

AB 421, authored by Culver City Democratic Assemblymember Isaac Bryan, would require the ballot label for referenda to be followed by the choices “Keep the law” and “Overturn the law.” 

Bryan said the bill aims to address abuses of the referendum process by special interests seeking to overturn laws passed by the Legislature. The bill has been heavily watered down since it was first introduced. It passed the Senate elections committee in July and awaits an appropriations committee hearing. 

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1
Who oversees sheriffs on jail deaths?

Inmates at the Orange County jail in Santa Ana. Photo by Lucy Nicholson, Reuters
Inmates at the Orange County jail in Santa Ana. Photo by Lucy Nicholson, Reuters

In response to a startling number of deaths occurring in California jails, Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins has proposed a bill that would install a “local detention monitor” to investigate in-custody deaths. Not surprisingly, county sheriffs are opposing the measure, saying it would “create redundant layers of oversight,” writes CalMatters’ criminal justice reporter Nigel Duara.

A handful of data points paint a bleak picture: In San Diego County’s jail system, which houses an average of 3,800 people per day, 18 people died in custody in 2021 — the most ever recorded there. The next year, another 18 people died. That same year in Solano County jails, which house an average of 500 people per day, five people died in custody.

Similar to the Office of the Inspector General for prison oversight, the proposed measure from the San Diego Democrat would create a statewide inspector for jails, who would have the authority to initiate audits, interview staff and review procedures. The monitor would serve a six-year term and could kick start investigations at the request of the governor, the Senate rules committee, the Assembly speaker or each county’s Board of Supervisors.

  • Atkins, during a July hearing: “The county Board of Supervisors bears the responsibility of settling lawsuits involving in-custody jail deaths, but have limited authority in requiring the Sheriff’s Department to enact policies to reduce in-custody deaths.”

But law enforcement officials argue that jails are adequately policed and provide sufficient medical, social and mental health services to inmates. Mike Boudreaux, Tulare County sheriff and president of the California State Sheriffs’ Association, said jails are also “unfairly blamed” for deaths that might have resulted from preexisting health conditions.

  • Boudreaux: “I think that there’s this misconception that there’s these unruly deaths that are occurring inside our jail facilities…. But the fact of the matter is, people die. And are they dying at the hands of jail staff and sheriff’s offices? No, that’s not what’s occurring.”

Other critics of the bill, including one Sacramento attorney Nigel spoke to, believe that the bill offers too many exemptions for law enforcement that it ultimately renders itself toothless. The bill is currently awaiting the Assembly appropriations committee.

2
Prescribing healthy food

Volunteer Bridgette Burney pulls bags of apples out of the Solano County Mobile Food Pharmacy truck in Fairfield on Aug 1, 2023. Photo by Semantha Norris, CalMatters

A volunteer pulls bags of apples out of the Solano County Mobile Food Pharmacy truck in Fairfield on Aug 1, 2023. Photo by Semantha Norris, CalMatters

If there’s any truth to the old adage, “an apple a day keeps the doctor away,” imagine what a prescription for other fruits, vegetables and even chicken breasts can do. Across California, a patchwork of local programs are experimenting with “food prescriptions” to improve the health of residents while reducing hunger and health care costs.

As CalMatters’ politics and California Divide intern Rya Jetha reports, food prescription programs can entail bundles of healthy food options being delivered to patients, such as those diagnosed with diabetes. The programs aim to prevent, manage and reverse chronic disease, and some research has shown they help lower obesity, blood pressure and average blood sugar

  • Shane Bailey, 72, who has diabetes, kidney disease and high blood pressure and is a participant in the Stockton food bank’s Healthy Food RX Program: “My primary doctor is impressed with my cholesterol because they say it’s better than theirs…. My dream is to live to 95.”

CalAIM, the state program that provides Medi-Cal patients with broader health services, has enabled health plans to provide 14 optional community support services to patients. Medically supportive food programs, which includes medically-tailored meals and food prescriptions, rank as the third most popular service, with 6,400 Medi-Cal members using such food programs last year.

Outside CalAIM, there are food prescription programs in Stockton, Los Angeles County, San Francisco and more, financed by various philanthropic groups, health care companies or local governments. The federal Farm Bill is also funding 14 tests in California.

But as efforts to expand these programs continue, one legislative attempt to require Medi-Cal to cover medically supportive food failed this session. Introduced by Democratic Assemblymember Mia Bonta of Oakland, the bill was estimated to cost tens of millions of dollars and was shelved in the Assembly appropriations committee. Bonta plans to reintroduce the bill next year. 

Food insecurity and hunger: CalMatters has a detailed new explainer that explores a key conundrum for California: Why does a state that produces nearly half the country’s fruits and vegetables — and that spends so much on food aid — have so many residents still not getting all the food they need?

The explainer looks at the history of food aid, what happened during the COVID-19 pandemic, what solutions are being tried and much more. If you’re curious about this issue, read here

3
Fewer votes to borrow for housing?

Construction on Casa Sueños, an affordable housing complex at 3500 E. 12th St. in Oakland, on Aug 7, 2023. Photo by Semantha Norris, CalMatters

Construction on an affordable housing complex in Oakland, on Aug 7, 2023. Photo by Semantha Norris, CalMatters

If a proposal is popular with voters but not popular enough to move forward, what is there left to do? For affordable housing advocates, one approach is to lower the standard of, well, popularity.

Most local bond measures in California require at least two-thirds support from voters to pass, explains CalMatters’ housing reporter Ben Christopher. In the past few years, measures to borrow money for housing didn’t pass, even though a majority of voters said “yes.”

For the fourth time since 2017, Assemblymember Cecilia Aguiar-Curry is proposing to amend the state constitution to lower the share of votes required to 55% to approve bonds. This year she’s backed by the Assembly’s new speaker, Robert Rivas, as well as a coalition of housing advocates, developers, unions and local governments.

  • Aguiar-Curry, a Democrat from Davis, to CalMatters: “Why should one-third of the local voters have the power to overrule fiscal decisions in your community?”

But because most approved local bond measures are paid by increasing property taxes, the measure is opposed by business groups who do not want to make it easier for local governments to hike taxes and raise debt — or do anything to weaken1978’s Proposition 13, which caps local taxation.

  • Republican Assemblymember Diane Dixon of Newport Beach: “It’s a slippery slope. There are always attempts to undo Prop. 13 and the two-thirds vote, and it’s just a pincer attack.”

The proposed amendment still needs to pass the Legislature (with a two-thirds vote, no less). If successful, it will be slated for the November 2024 ballot where, interestingly enough, voters in the counties surrounding the San Francisco Bay will likely vote on a local housing-related bond estimated to be as large as $20 billion. The amendment, if passed, would simultaneously lower the voting threshold for that bond from two-thirds to 55%.

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CalMatters columnist Dan Walters: If Gavin Newsom and Ron DeSantis debate, homelessness will haunt California’s governor.

Kern County has a major opportunity to remake its higher education leadership to reflect the region’s Latino majority, writes Mark Martinez, political science chairperson at Cal State Bakersfield.

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