Advancement Project Closing the Opportunity Gap

Disparities in Engagement

ResearcYoung person marching with "Equity is Justice" signh demonstrates that people of color don’t participate in political life at the same rates as Whites. This is true for both rates of participation in voting as well as other forms of political or civic engagement. But why?

The reasons are complex but grounded in a disparity of resources. Those with more money and time to engage, as well as political know-how, are better able to express their needs and wishes in the halls of political power.

There are numerous structural barriers that stop low-income people and communities of color from civically engaging:

  • Lack of Time: to show up for city council meetings, track local issues or policy initiatives, serve on a commission or board, or be involved in a neighborhood group.
  • Lack of Money: to contribute to the campaigns of candidates that may better represent communities of color, or run for office.
  • Insufficient Civic Skills: to understand the system and how it works, engage in active, respectful partnership, or know how to show up to represent their neighborhood’s needs.
  • Lack of, or Missed Opportunities for, Engagement: not being asked to participate by government, or, for reasons above, the inability to respond to opportunities.

These and other barriers contribute to a sense of powerlessness or alienation among low-income people of color: a sense that their voices, and thus participation, don’t matter.

Research on Disparities

Diverse group of Latinos testifying at press conferenceIn 2004, the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) released The Ties That Bind: Changing Demographics and Civic Engagement in California (read a high-level summary in this policy brief, “Participating in Democracy: Civic Engagement in California”). This groundbreaking report explored rates of civic engagement (volunteerism and political participation) across California by multiple demographic factors. Uniquely, the report includes data on forms of political participation other than voting, such as writing elected officials, signing petitions, and attending public rallies.

Their principal finding is that racial disparities in those forms “actually tend to reinforce the dominance of Whites at the ballot box.” Those who have the most to say in California elections – specifically White, older, more affluent, more educated homeowners – are also those who participate more in the broader political and civic life of the state. What this means is, “…the limited community participation among disadvantaged groups means that their voices may not be heard as different interest groups compete for state and local government services.”

In March 2016, PPIC released an update that builds on The Ties That Bind but focuses exclusively on participation through voting, titled California’s Exclusive Electorate: Who Votes and Why It Matters. More than a decade later, the research makes clear that California’s electorate still remains unrepresentative of the state’s population.

Updating the Research

Latinas in deep conversation in meeting roomIn June 2016, thanks to support from the James Irvine Foundation, Political Voice released Unequal Voices: California’s Racial Disparities in Political Participation. The first report in a two-part series, Unequal Voices broadens public understanding of political participation in California by providing a concise analysis of voting and other forms of participation. The reports look at political participation across the state by race, age, socioeconomic status, gender, and geography. The first report is focused on existing data; the second will analyze new, original survey data of 2,700 Californians.

The goal is to:

  1. Broaden public understanding of the problems facing California’s democracy – focusing excessively on voting rates may lead many Californians to misdiagnose the ailments of our democracy.
  2. Ensure that community-based organizations and local governments across the state have current data on political participation leading to precise strategies to eliminate racial and economic disparities in all forms of political participation and make political influence more equitable.

The principal investigator for the research is nationally renowned Karthick Ramakrishnan, Professor and Associate Dean, School of Public Policy, UC Riverside.

Regional Convenings

Based on the research, a series of regional training sessions will be held for community-based organizations and local governments. The trainings will share the findings from the research about the current landscape of political participation in California overall and their respective region, where improvement is most urgently needed, and promising strategies that exist to address disparities.

Participants will gain information but also build collaboration and partnerships with other community leaders and organizations, helping them to collectively find solutions to issues of political voice.

For more information, please contact John Dobard, Manager of Political Voice, at (213) 989-1302.