California’s Racist History of Voter Registration

Why can’t eligible Californian voters be automatically registered to vote? Have you ever wondered why Californians must register to vote and what makes people eligible to participate in our state’s democracy?

Discriminatory laws and tactics have been designed to suppress working-class, Black, immigrant, and Indigenous communities. Voter registration is a barrier to voting. Our state’s racist history continues to put the burden of registering and eligibility to vote on the individual. But this hasn’t stopped communities of color from fighting voting barriers to build governing power.

1849: California’s First State Election

California’s first state election takes place after the Mexican-American War. The vote is restricted to white, male citizens, including white male Californios (descendants of Spanish colonists in Mexico). The legislature is allowed to take a vote to admit Native Americans to suffrage, but they never do.

1866 : The Birth of Voter Registration

All citizens are required to register in order to vote. The burden of registering and proving eligibility is placed entirely on the individual. Would-be voters have to travel to the county seat to register. Voters are required to have a “settled” long-time residence. In 1899, the law is changed to require that every citizen re-register to vote every two years.

By 1892, voter turnout at presidential elections falls from about 80% in the 1890s to 49% by 1924.

1870 : California Votes Down the 15th Amendment

California was one of two “free” states to vote down the 15th Amendment to the US Constitution, which guaranteed the right to vote to all citizens regardless of race. Even though the 15th Amendment passed, this vote showed the state’s position against giving people of color the right to vote, particularly Black and Chinese Californians.

Native Americans were excluded from 15th Amendment. They were not considered citizens and remained unable to vote until 1924.

1879 : A New State Constitution

“no native of China…shall ever exercise the privileges of an elector in this State.” California adopts a new Constitution that bars Chinese-born Californians from voting in the state. It also institutes a poll tax into California law which will not be abolished until 1914.

In 1894, an English literacy requirement for voting is added to the California Constitution. These voter requirements were race and class-based barriers to keep working, poor, Black, and immigrant people from accessing the ballot. Literacy laws remain until 1975.

1930: “Permanent” Voter Registration

Voter registration becomes permanent but voters have to vote in every primary or general election or else be “purged” from the voter rolls and have to re-register. California purges thousands of registered voters every other year until 1976 [1].

2020: Finally Enfranchising Formerly Incarcerated Californians

Proposition 17 amends the state’s constitution to automatically restore voting rights for people with previous felony convictions. Prior to this, people convicted of a felony were barred from voting while in prison or on parole. Criminal disenfranchisement disproportionately impacts working class communities of color due to the history of slavery, the Black Codes, and present day racist policies that criminalize Black, Brown, and immigrant communities.

Californians serving time in prison are still not eligible to vote. [2]

Many Pacific Islanders are denied voting rights because of US militarization and colonization

Pacific Islanders are labeled with complex statuses that dictate their ability to participate in our democracy and receive access to vital services and resources. For example, U.S. Nationals from American Samoa are not eligible to vote when living in the United States.

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Today: 4.7 MILLION unregistered but eligible voters

California still has the largest number of unregistered, but eligible voters in the country: 4.7 million. Most of these voters are from working-class communities of color. The state’s voter registration system continues to put the burden of registering and eligibility on the individual, continuing our state’s history of race and class-based voter disenfranchisement.

California-based advocacy organizations are fighting to pass Senate Bill 299 to update our voter registration system. We must reclaim our democracy in order to make the changes we want for our state.

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Vote for candidates who care about expanding democracy in California for communities of color who have been disenfranchised for too long.



AAPIs for Civic Empowerment Education Fund

A statewide network that builds progressive AAPI governing power in CA through campaign organizing, policy advocacy, IVE, and narrative change.