As States Gear Up For Vote By Mail, New Report on First-Time & Limited-English Speaking Voters Makes Key Recommendations for California

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LOS ANGELES – August 4, 2020. California Common Cause and the Center for Social Innovation at University of California Riverside released a report today on how to reach first-time and limited-English speaking voters when conveying COVID-related changes in the upcoming November 2020 general election. 

The report, “Reaching Low-Propensity Voters in California’s November 2020 Elections” examines voters’ awareness of voting options, voting option preferences, and reactions to existing voter messaging materials.

Based on a research project including focus groups and stakeholder engagement, this report was completed on an accelerated schedule to best serve elections officials and civic engagement organizations that are planning now for voter education and outreach for the fast approaching November 2020 election.

The focus groups included low-propensity and first-time voters from Spanish, Tagalog, Mandarin, Vietnamese, Korean, and Hmong language communities, and English-speaking youth, including many first-generation voters. Participants ranged in age and represented most major metropolitan areas across California, with greatest concentrations in the Bay Area, Los Angeles, Central California, and the Inland Empire.

In most California counties, voters will encounter a new election system in the 2020 November elections. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Governor and the Legislature have decreed that all registered voters will receive a ballot in the mail, which they can return by mail, at a ballot drop box, or at an in-person voting site. In-person voting options will also be available: many counties will offer consolidated voting sites for the first-time, some counties will offer their standard polling places, and other counties will offer vote centers as they have previously under the Voter’s Choice Act. 

Habitual voters and those voters most targeted by campaigns are likely to stay updated on these changes and continue turning out. By contrast, first-time and low-propensity voters may be confused, deterred by the complex and changing environment, or unprepared to participate. 

The aim of “Reaching Low-Propensity Voters in California’s November 2020 Elections” is to gauge the extent to which first-time and low-propensity voters may need targeted outreach to explain their options for voting in the November 2020 elections, and how to execute that targeted outreach. The resulting findings were shared with state and local elections officials charged with crafting voter outreach and information material, as well as nonprofit and Get Out the Vote groups that educate and engage voters. Findings include:

Key Observations:

  1. Targeted outreach efforts are crucial to reaching first-time and low-propensity voters because trusted and preferred sources of information vary considerably by group and age.
  2. Across all groups hesitancy to vote in-person is elevated in 2020 due to COVID. There is greater enthusiasm for vote-by-mail and ballot drop-off. For those who do intend to vote in person, language assistance and help explaining the ballot are the primary reasons.
  3. Clarifying information is needed to reduce concerns about mail-in and drop-off voting. Distrust of mail is high among low-propensity voters.
  4. Participants respond most positively towards materials with simple graphics, images, few words, and straightforward explanations about voting options.
  5. Across all groups the most common suggestion for modifying outreach materials is to increase demographic and cultural representation.

Recommendations to Election Officials:

  1. Make COVID-19 precautions taken at voting sites clear and enforced, before and on Election Day. 
  2. Produce voter outreach and information material that is demographically representative and culturally relevant and accessible.
  3. Produce voter outreach and information materials in collaboration and partnership with cultural experts from community groups who are trusted messengers for low-propensity voters.
  4. Produce voter outreach and information materials using simple visuals, images, symbols, and graphics. Avoid text-heavy materials.
  5. Convene similar efforts as the one producing this report early on to coordinate across levels of expertise and authority.​

Recommendations to Community Organizations: ​

  1. Keep emphasizing importance of community anchors as trusted messengers .​
  2. Collaborate with ethnic media — create synergy with other trusted messengers.​
  3. Produce voter outreach and information materials using simple visuals, images, symbols, and graphics. Avoid text-heavy materials.
  4. Prepare information regarding impact of specific policies — low-propensity voters want to know how voting impacts their community and need information they trust about what is on the ballot.​
  5. Convene focus groups similar to the ones producing this report with community members — voter interest is high even among low-propensity voters and now more than ever, community wants to connect and be heard.​

Jonathan Mehta Stein, Executive Director, California Common Cause
“California has deep voter participation disparities on the basis of race and age. Voting in California will change this November, and those changes could make those participation disparities worse. These findings are critical as they will influence voter outreach and voter messaging materials, and could have a profound effect on voter turnout, especially among low-propensity voters.”

Francisco I. Pedraza, Assistant Professor & Director of the Civic Engagement Group, Center for Social Innovation, UC Riverside
“With less than four months before the November 2020 elections, not all first-time and low-propensity voters in California are aware that mail-in ballots will be available to all registered voters. While first time and low-propensity voters express enthusiasm and interest for drop box and mail-in voting options, they also want reassurance that their vote will be delivered if submitted by mail or drop box. And, those preferring in-person voting want that option to be safe and available, particularly for those who count on in-person services like language assistance, accessibility, and other services to vote.”

Karthick Ramakrishnan, Professor & Director of Center for Social Innovation, UC Riverside
“Part of the innovative landscape of electoral participation in California is the ability of foundations, community organizations, election officials, researchers, and residents to learn and adapt. Given the rapid and dynamic shifts in the course of the pandemic, we are grateful for the support of the Haas Jr. Fund and the California Community Foundation, and research partnerships with California Common Cause and various community partners. By drawing on a cross-section of experts, we are best positioned to produce lessons that can help California engage low-propensity voters and first-time voters.”

This project benefited from input from the Office of the California Secretary of State, various county elections officials, and a community advisory group that included Alianza Coachella Valley, Chinese for Affirmative Action, Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights LA, Filipino Advocates for Justice, Hmong Innovating Politics, Korean Resource Center, Orange County Asian and Pacific Islander Community Alliance, and Youth Mentoring Action Network.

Read the report and view the presentation slides online.

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