California Counts: California's election chief knows firsthand why so many don't vote

California Secretary of State Alex Padilla talks with Scott Shafer on KQED Newsroom about the barriers people face to voting and his own family's experience with voting.
California Secretary of State Alex Padilla talks with Scott Shafer on KQED Newsroom about the barriers people face to voting and his own family's experience with voting.
KQED News (via YouTube)

In a collaboration we're calling California Counts, KPCC is partnering with reporters at KQED, Capital Public Radio and KPBS to explore what issues and candidates people are talking about in this election.

Alex Padilla knows exactly why so many Californians don't even bother to register, much less vote. And as secretary of state, he's determined to do something about it.

Of the estimated 6.7 million eligible but unregistered voters in California, the overwhelming majority are Latino and Asian-American. Many are from immigrant families, like his.

"I’m proud of my folks," Padilla says. "They emigrated here from Mexico in pursuit of the American dream. They worked very, very hard."

But one thing they did not do, Padilla says, is instill in him and his brother and sister the importance of voting.

"Growing up in the Padilla household," he recalls, "it didn’t involve a lot of politics at the dinner table or us tagging along to the polls every November when they cast their ballots — because they weren’t citizens."

In fact, he says, it wasn't until he decided to run for the Los Angeles City Council in 1999 that his parents were convinced to become citizens.

"It took them close to 30 years to finally decide to become citizens and go through that process," Padilla says. "My dad was able to vote for me the first time I ran, my mother soon after."

Video: Padilla talks about his family's experience registering to vote

Padilla, who was still living at home during his first campaign, quit his job to run for office. Soon afterward, his dad also lost his job, so the Padilla household was suddenly down two breadwinners.

"We put him to work full time on the campaign," Padilla remembers, adding that his dad became very popular at campaign events.

Padilla won that election, and seven years later he was elected to the state Senate.

Of California's dismal voter turnout, he says, "There are many barriers to participating, and those who are unregistered are disproportionately communities of color, younger people and working-class families."

He makes a point of speaking at naturalization ceremonies where immigrants take the oath of citizenship. In fact, he arrived at KQED after attending one in Oakland. Part of his message is the importance of getting involved in our democracy.

"For a lot of people, they feel disconnected from government, or a lack of trust," Padilla says. "Will my vote really count? A big part is that they're aren't even aware Election Day is coming up. They’re not watching CNN or getting all the mailers in the mailbox. Or they don’t know where their polling place is."

When Padilla ran for secretary of state in 2014, his critics said he was just using the office as a steppingstone. But since taking over the job from Debra Bowen, Padilla has invigorated an agency most agree was moribund.

In June, California will become the very last state to finally have a statewide voter database. That will allow the state to, among other things, implement the new Motor Voter law that will automatically register to vote eligible people who get a driver's license or state identification card, unless they opt out. It will also, Padilla says, allow voters to do things like verify their registration online, find out where to vote and check that their ballot was counted.

Lisa Pickoff-White/KQED

Of course, that doesn't mean they'll go out and vote. In November 2014, just 42 percent of registered voters cast ballots in California.

Padilla is also supporting a California version of Colorado's voting reform. Among other things, it lengthens the voting period and allows voters to cast ballots at conveniently placed "voting centers" rather than just polling places near their homes.

"We know our democracy functions best when everybody participates," Padilla says. "When turnout is reflective of California, the outcomes — what passes and what doesn’t, who gets elected — it’s more reflective of our state."

Copyright 2015 KQED. For more election coverage, visit kqed.org/election2016.

Series: California Counts

California Counts is a collaboration of KPBS, KPCC, KQED and Capital Public Radio to report on the 2016 election. The coverage focuses on major issues and solicits diverse voices on what's important to the future of California.

Read more in this series and let us know your thoughts on Twitter using the hashtag #CACounts.