Cal. Litig. 2022, Volume 35, Number 1

The Evolution of Voter Access in California

By Alisa Belinkoff Katz

Elections have consequences. Thus, the democratic imperative to ensure that every eligible person is able to cast a ballot is often countermanded by fear of fraud. Throughout its first century of existence, California came down hard on the side of preventing voter fraud, to the detriment of transient, poor, and non-white citizens. Since the late 1950’s, the drive to ensure vote system integrity has been matched by an equivalent effort to expand voter access. But despite these efforts to broaden the electorate, California’s voters do not reflect the diversity of its people.

The first California constitution (1849) limited the franchise to white males. After adoption of the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, extending the vote to former slaves, Black men were enfranchised — but their numbers were tiny. The much larger contingent of immigrants from China (nearly 9% of California’s population in 1870) spurred adoption of anti-Chinese legislation, including a state constitutional prohibition on voting by natives of that country. Chinese immigration to the U.S. was foreclosed by Federal legislation in 1882. Native Americans retaining ties to their tribes were also excluded from the franchise, and many Latinos were barred by an English literacy requirement imposed by State constitutional amendment in 1894. California women were precluded from voting until 1911 (nine years before the establishment of women’s suffrage nationwide).

California lawmakers also fought hard to prevent voter fraud. This effort often took the form of limiting working-class and transient people’s access to the franchise. Prior to 1866, an eligible voter could simply present himself at the polls and demand a ballot — and if there were no objection, he could cast a vote. In many countries today, it’s almost that simple: information supplied to one’s motor vehicle department or the equivalent of Social Security is automatically ported to a voting database, and everyone is registered to vote. But the California Registry Act (Stats. 1866, ch. 265) placed the entire burden of registration on the voter. Registering to vote required a visit to the county seat in an age before Internet, telephones, or cars. According to David Litt, who has written extensively on voter access issues, voter registration systems were "among the earliest forms of voter suppression."

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