Diverse voters may push big California changes

10:36 PM, Dec 5, 2012   |    comments
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Perhaps it's just a post-election euphoria that helps explains a new statewide poll showing Californians bullish on both the future and some traditionally controversial ideas for tinkering with the state budget and initiatives.

But once you dig into the details, what stands out is the stark contrast between traditional voters - who have, until this year, dominated the political discourse - and new voters, who are younger and more ethnically diverse and undoubtedly the future of California elections.

Wednesday night's post-election survey from the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California finds Gov. Jerry Brown's job approval at its highest point since he retook the top job (48 percent). PPIC also find a plurality of Californians saying things are on the right track (44 percent, the highest since 2007). 

Interestingly, 46 percent of those polled by PPIC say the passage of Brown's Proposition 30 tax hike has made them more optimistic about the future. That may be mostly because voters feel they dodged the bullet of deep education cuts, what PPIC pollster Mark Baldassare calls "California's own version of the 'fiscal cliff.'"

And it's Prop 30 that's generated an awful lot of talk about the changing California electorate. The initiative won with what now appears (as vote totals are being finalized) to be 55.3 percent support - a strong showing for a tax increase in historically tax skittish California.

Much of the talk has focused on the high turnout among young and ethnically diverse voters, with estimates of 18-29 year olds comprising somewhere between 20 percent and 28 percent of the November electorate. Latinos are thought to have made up as much as 22 percent of this fall's voters.

If those numbers turn out to be anywhere near accurate once voter data is fully compiled, it's a big story. Why? Because California has typically had a very different electorate than its overall population. A 2006 PPIC study coined the phrase "California's exclusive electorate," a way to describe that the average voter is typically older, white, and more conservative than his or her fellow Californian.

In that year, the average likely voter was at least 45 years old, and a whopping 70 percent of those voters were white.

Fast forward to 2012. A number of political observers think young voters, and Latinos in particular, helped propel not just Prop 30 to victory, but a slew of Democratic causes - from defeating the union-focused campaign contribution limit, Proposition 32, to supporting enough Democratic legislative candidates to propel the party to its first super-majority dominance in the statehouse in almost 180 years.

No one knows whether these voters will continue to show up; for starters, this was a general election featuring both the reelection of a Democratic president and a big statewide campaign for taxes linked to education cuts. Will these voters show up in off-year elections? Primary elections? Special statewide elections? Hard to say.

But young and ethnic voters in the new PPIC poll clearly depart from their older, white counterparts when it comes to their view of government.

PPIC's Baldassare says these voters have a greater optimism about the state of the state, "which provides then," he says, "a foundation for feeling that government can have a role in making things even better."

How much better? Here's an eye popping number in the new poll: asked whether they'd prefer more or less taxes for more or less government services, more taxes/more services receives tepid support among the traditional older voters (48 percent) and white voters (44 percent). But check out the new voters: 60 percent of those age 18-44 would pick more taxes/more services, as would 54 percent of Asians and a resounding 66 percent of Latinos.

The new poll also suggests these young and diverse voters have more interest in shaking up the state budget and the initiative process that do their elders.

Overall, 54 percent of adults say they'd support making it easier to pass special local taxes (a 55 percent vote on Election Day instead of the current two-thirds). While support among likely voters drops to 50 percent - which includes older, more homogeneous voters - PPIC found stronger support for the idea young adults (55 percent) and Latinos (62 percent). And lest you think this is just talk, a proposed constitutional ballot measure on this very subject, with an eye towards the 2014 ballot, was introduced Monday in the state Senate. By tinkering with tax votes, it would be a modification of 1978's landmark Proposition 13.

Speaking of Prop 13 changes, how about making it easier for the Legislature to raise taxes? Only 45 percent of likely voters in PPIC's poll support majority vote tax hikes in Sacramento (again, a modification of Prop 13), but again the demographics find a notable split: support rises to 53 percent among young Californians, and still further to 62 percent of Latinos - the latter being a whopping 17 point increase from the overall electorate, higher than any other subgroup in the new poll.

That last statistic suggests what both PPIC's Baldassare and Field Poll director Mark DiCamillo recently said at the monthly meeting of the Sacramento Press Club: young and ethnic California voters have more confidence in the "value of government" than do their older, more conservative elders.

And the PPIC poll seems to offer another glimpse of that in a different proposal: should the Legislature and governor be given the power to amend or modify initiatives after a certain number of years? It's an idea bandied about by some advocates of reform, yet the new poll finds only 40 percent support among likely voters. But ask young and ethnic voters, and you get a different answer. The poll finds 53 percent of Latinos and 58 percent of young voters surveyed like the idea.

(Both young and old, and all ethnic groups, do agree on one kind of state budget change: tighter controls on legislative spending. Proposals to limit spending through some kind of "cap," to increase the size of the state's rainy day fund, and to enact a pay-as-you-go rule for big new expenses all have support across the board.)

None of this indicates big changes in the immediate future, but it does suggest that the growing diversity of the electorate in California could change the conventional wisdom about how voters view their government and its proper powers. It also could present opportunities... and challenges... for the two major political parties, especially as many voters (young voters, in particular) are now less enamored with joining a party in the first place.


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