A photo of a California poll tax receipt from 1857

California has removed most obstacles to voting. Why are so many still not going to the polls?

A photo of a California poll tax receipt from 1857

During California’s early years, paying a poll tax was considered an obligation of citizenship. (Photo Credit: Edson Smith Photo Collection/Courtesy of the Santa Barbara Public Library)

A new report by the UCLA Luskin Center for History and Policy takes a historical view to understand why, in 2020, the electorate in California remains demographically and socioeconomically skewed.

The authors contend that vote-by-mail, near-automatic voter registration, a vote-by-mail ballot tracing system and other practices have expanded voting rights to most Californians. Yet longstanding inequities in voting patterns persist.

Despite persistent statewide policy efforts to increase voting access since 1960, voter registration and turnout are lower among people of color than among white people, the report notes. And California voters today — especially those who vote by mail — tend to be older, wealthier and whiter than the state’s overall population. For example, in Los Angeles County, wealthier and whiter districts cast as many as 40% more votes than those with heavily Latino and working-class populations.

The paper suggests that ongoing factors like gerrymandering and the disenfranchisement of former felons who are on parole may explain part of that phenomenon. (If it passes in November, however, California’s Proposition 17 would enable people on parole for felony convictions to vote.)

“Notwithstanding the efforts of the past 60 years, California still has work to do,” said Alisa Belinkoff Katz, the report’s lead author and a fellow at the center, which is housed in the UCLA College. “California’s electorate does not reflect the diversity of its population. We can only meet the present moment if we understand and eliminate policies that have historically restricted the franchise.”

For the first hundred years after 1850, when California became a state, voting laws limited access to the franchise, in effect suppressing the vote of poor and minority populations. The state passed several such policies during the late 1800s, including English literacy tests. And the federal government banned citizenship for most Native Americans and all Chinese immigrants, excluding them from the franchise altogether.

California also implemented stringent voter registration rules that made voting more difficult for people with lower incomes and those without a settled address.

After World War II, however, state officials changed course. They worked diligently both to overturn discriminatory policies and to make it easier to register and vote, launching voter registration drives, expanding absentee voting, and experimenting with all-mail elections. The state has passed legislation designed to expand the franchise almost every year since 1960.

But the study reinforces the reality that structural inequality still keeps many Californians from participating in the political process.

“California, and American society at large, must reckon with and overturn the racial and socioeconomic barriers that discourage or prevent large numbers of eligible voters form voting,” said David Myers, a UCLA professor of history and director of the Luskin Center.

Other key takeaways from the report:

– California enacted voter registration — requiring a settled address — in 1866. This limited access to the vote for the working class, poor, immigrants and racial minorities.

-From the 1890s to 1924, voter turnout in presidential elections dropped dramatically across the United States, from around 80% of eligible voters to just 49%, in part because of voter registration laws.

-California suppressed the vote with an 1899 law requiring voters to re-register every two years. The state established permanent voter registration in 1930, but that law also purged thousands of registered voters from the rolls each year if they had failed to vote in prior elections.

-A constitutional amendment allowing absentee voting barely passed in 1922 after failing three previous times. But the use of absentee voting was limited until a series of reforms beginning in 1978. Today, the vote-by-mail option is open to all, but it has not been used by all Californians at equal rates.

-An English literacy requirement for voting remained on the books until the early 1970s. It was rarely applied to European or Asian immigrants, but in the 1950s it was sometimes used by political candidates to challenge Mexican American voters at the polls.

Katz is also associate director of the Los Angeles Initiative at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs. The research team also included Zev Yaroslavsky, a senior fellow at the center; Izul de la Vega, a UCLA doctoral student; Saman Haddad, a UCLA undergraduate; and Jeanne Ramin, a recent UCLA graduate. As part of their research, the authors interviewed California Secretary of State Alex Padilla and Los Angeles County Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk Dean Logan, two of the state’s most important elections officials.

This article, written by Maia Ferdman, originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

A photo of Hana Abdirahman.

Diagnosing Hidden Brain Injuries Drives Student Success

A photo of Hana Abdirahman.

Hana Abdirahman (Photo Credit: Reed Hutchinson)

Hana Abdirahman has always focused hard on something: In high school it was sports. Later on, it was work. But she wasn’t ready for college when she tried, right out of high school, and she dropped out pretty quickly. A few years later – in her mid-20s – she decided to try focusing on higher education for real, on her own terms. Two years at a community college showed her she could succeed as an undergraduate; she just needed to find the next step if she was going to study the brain, a subject of longtime fascination, at a high level. She was looking for a large university, with a hospital and network of labs, to get deep into the subject.

That’s when she found UCLA’s highly regarded neuroscience program and the Division of Undergraduate Re-entry Scholarships, which allow students past the traditional undergraduate age to return to school when they’re better suited to a university’s rigor. Abdirahman was able to help support her own education as the recipient of several re-entry scholarships from donors to the division of Undergraduate Education.

“What’s expected of people is to go to college right after high school,” Abdirahman says. “The reentry scholarship gives older students an incentive to go back to school: at UCLA, there’s no one path to higher education.”

When Abdirahman enrolled at UCLA, she was able to take advantage of a university lab on brain injury. Brain injury had interested her ever since she’d heard about an athlete who’d had part of her brain removed because of seizures, and who went on to compete after the operation. Her work in the lab led to a research project, in which Abdirahman measures proteins in the bloodstream, a process that helps doctors diagnose injuries they can’t see in an MRI. Some of the findings will be part of a paper she and her colleagues expect to publish; and the research also became the basis of her senior honors thesis.

Abdirahman has made an impact at UCLA doing what she loves, and hopes to use her skills to help others. She couldn’t have done it without the Scholarship Resource Center, a no-charge support program established to provide scholarship information, resources, and support services to all UCLA students, regardless of financial aid eligibility.  “The Center connects you with a counselor; it really helps people like me who haven’t had the normal college experience. Every quarter I would go in and talk with them about how I was doing.”

Now, after graduating from UCLA this past June, Hana is still on track to succeed.  She’s pursuing her dream as a first-year medical student, hoping to specialize in neurology or surgery. Both the Re-entry Scholarship and the Scholarship Resource Center paved the way for her future success.

“The support I received helped me stay on course at UCLA as an undergraduate.”

Photo of Andrea Ghez

Andrea Ghez wins 2020 Nobel Prize in physics

Photo of Andrea Ghez

Andrea Ghez, UCLA’s Lauren B. Leichtman and Arthur E. Levine Professor of Astrophysics, has been awarded the 2020 Nobel Prize in physics. Photo Credit: Elena Zhukova

Andrea Ghez, UCLA’s Lauren B. Leichtman and Arthur E. Levine Professor of Astrophysics, today was awarded the 2020 Nobel Prize in physics.

Ghez shares half of the prize with Reinhard Genzel of UC Berkeley and the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics. The Nobel committee praised them for “the discovery of a supermassive compact object at the centre of our galaxy.” The other half of the prize was awarded to Roger Penrose of the University of Oxford “for the discovery that black hole formation is a robust prediction of the general theory of relativity.”

In July 2019, the journal Science published a study by Ghez and her research group that is the most comprehensive test of Albert Einstein’s iconic general theory of relativity near the monstrous black hole at the center of our galaxy. Although she concluded that “Einstein’s right, at least for now,” the research group is continuing to test Einstein’s theory, which she says cannot fully explain gravity inside a black hole.

Ghez studies more than 3,000 stars that orbit the supermassive black hole. Black holes have such high density that nothing can escape their gravitational pull, not even light. The center of the vast majority of galaxies appears to have a supermassive black hole, she said.

“I’m thrilled and incredibly honored to receive a Nobel Prize in physics,” said Ghez, who is director of the UCLA Galactic Center Group. “The research the Nobel committee is honoring today is the product of a wonderful collaboration among the scientists in the UCLA Galactic Center Orbits Initiative and the University of California’s wise investment in the W.M. Keck Observatory.

“We have cutting-edge tools and a world-class research team, and that combination makes discovery tremendous fun. Our understanding of how the universe works is still so incomplete. The Nobel Prize is fabulous, but we still have a lot to learn.”

UCLA Chancellor Gene Block lauded Ghez for her accomplishments.

“The UCLA community is exceedingly proud of Professor Ghez’s achievements, including this extraordinary honor,” Block said. “We are inspired by her research uncovering the secrets of our universe and its potential to help us better understand the cosmos.”

David Haviland, chair of the Nobel Committee for Physics, said: “The discoveries of this year’s Laureates have broken new ground in the study of compact and supermassive objects. But these exotic objects still pose many questions that beg for answers and motivate future research. Not only questions about their inner structure, but also questions about how to test our theory of gravity under the extreme conditions in the immediate vicinity of a black hole.”

Ghez and her team have made direct measurements of how gravity works near a supermassive black hole — research she describes as “extreme astrophysics.”

Einstein’s general theory of relativity is the best description of how gravity works. “However, his theory is definitely showing vulnerability,” Ghez said in 2019. “[A]t some point we will need to move beyond Einstein’s theory to a more comprehensive theory of gravity that explains what a black hole is.”

Less than two months after her publication in Science, she and her research group reported in Astrophysical Journal Letters the surprising finding that the supermassive black hole is having an unusually large meal of interstellar gas and dust — and they do not yet understand why.

“We have never seen anything like this in the 24 years we have studied the supermassive black hole,” she said at the time. “It’s usually a pretty quiet, wimpy black hole on a diet. We don’t know what is driving this big feast.”

In January 2020, her team reported the discovery of a new class of bizarre objects — objects that look like gas and behave like stars — at the center of our galaxy, not far from the supermassive black hole.

Ghez and her team conducted their research at the W.M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii. They are able to see the impact of how space and time get comingled near the supermassive black hole, which is some 26,000 light-years away.

“Making a measurement of such fundamental importance has required years of patient observing, enabled by state-of-the-art technology,” Richard Green, director of the National Science Foundation’s division of astronomical sciences, said in 2019.

“Andrea is one of our most passionate and tenacious Keck users,” Keck Observatory director Hilton Lewis said, also in 2019. “Her latest groundbreaking research is the culmination of unwavering commitment over the past two decades to unlock the mysteries of the supermassive black hole at the center of our Milky Way Galaxy.”

The National Science Foundation funded Ghez’s research for the past 25 years. More recently, her research has also been funded by the W.M. Keck Foundation, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and the Heising-Simons Foundation, Lauren Leichtman and Arthur Levine, and Howard and Astrid Preston.

In 1998, Ghez answered one of astronomy’s most important questions, helping to show that a supermassive black hole resides at the center of the Milky Way galaxy. The question had been a subject of much debate among astronomers for more than a quarter of a century.

Ghez helped pioneer a powerful technology called adaptive optics, which corrects the distorting effects of the Earth’s atmosphere in real time and opened the center of our galaxy as a laboratory for exploring black holes and their fundamental role in the evolution of the universe. With adaptive optics at the Keck Observatory, she and her colleagues have revealed many surprises about the environments surrounding supermassive black holes, discovering, for example, young stars where none were expected and a lack of old stars where many were anticipated.

In 2000, Ghez and her research team reported that for the first time, astronomers had seen stars accelerate around the supermassive black hole. In 2003, she and her team reported that the case for the Milky Way’s black hole had been strengthened substantially and that all of the proposed alternatives could be excluded.

In 2005, Ghez and her colleagues took the first clear picture of the center of the Milky Way, including the area surrounding the black hole, at the Keck Observatory.

Ghez has earned numerous honors for her research, including election to the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences; she was the first woman to receive the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences’ Crafoord Prize, and she was named a MacArthur Fellow in 2008. In 2019, she was awarded an honorary degree by Oxford University.

She earned a bachelor’s degree in physics from MIT in 1987 and a doctorate from Caltech in 1992, and she has been a member of the UCLA faculty since 1994. When she was young, she wanted to be the first woman to walk on the moon.

Ghez is the eighth UCLA faculty member to be named a Nobel laureate, joining Willard Libby (chemistry, 1960), Julian Schwinger (physics, 1965), Donald Cram (chemistry, 1987), Paul Boyer (chemistry, 1997), Louis Ignarro (physiology or medicine, 1998), Lloyd Shapley (economics, 2012) and J. Fraser Stoddart (2016). Stoddart was a Northwestern University faculty member when he received the honor, but much of the work for which he was recognized was conducted at UCLA from 1997 to 2008.

In addition, seven UCLA alumni have been awarded the Nobel Prize.

Ghez is also the fourth woman to receive the physics prize, following Marie Curie in 1903, Maria Goeppert Mayer in 1963 and Donna Strickland in 2018.

This article, written by Stuart Wolpert, originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.