In the shadows of the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Voting Rights Act, the appallingly low turnout of youth voters in last November’s elections should raise an alarm about the future of our democracy.
According to a January report from the California Civic Engagement Project at UC Davis, only 8.2 percent of eligible 18- to 24-year-olds voted statewide. In raw numbers, that translates to a mere 285,000 out of 3.5 million adults in that age group.
How to engage young people is part of a larger challenge about voter participation in general, which has been declining for decades. High schools have a particularly important role to play in addressing the issue.
“That is the place where we can be most effective,” Mindy Romero, director of the UC Davis project, told Capitol Radio last fall. “If you get to youth before they are 18, if you teach them not only the civics process, but also the how and the why and the what about how to actually vote, you are much more likely to get them to turn out when they are 18.”
Once they do that, she said, voting is “habit forming.” “If you don’t get them when they are young, then only some of them come into the electorate when they are older.”
California is one of 10 states that require schools to serve as voter registration agencies or facilitate registration drives on their campuses. It is also one of even fewer states that allow pre-registration of 17-year-old voters.
State law designates the last two weeks of April and September “high school voter weeks.” That’s when school administrators must allow voter registrars on campus to sign up potential voters.
In an effort to increase the effectiveness of on-campus registration efforts, last year Gov. Jerry Brown signed Assembly Bill 1817, authored by Assemblyman Jimmy Gomez, D-Los Angeles. In the hopes that young people will be more effective than adults in reaching their peers, the law allows school officials to designate students as “voter outreach coordinators” on their campuses and to register or pre-register their classmates.
In addition, Assembly Bill 700, passed by the Legislature in 2013, requires the Instructional Quality Commission to ensure that voter education information is included in the high school American Government and Civics curriculum.
If there is one bright spot, it is that 18-year-olds who do register turn out at slightly higher numbers than 20- to 25-year-olds. This reflects a generally higher turnout of first-time voters. It suggests that if young people can be enticed to register, they will turn out in higher numbers.
The challenge thereafter is to keep them engaged. Another is making sure their votes are counted. According to Romero, 1 in 5 mail-in ballots submitted by 18- to 24-year-olds is rejected because it arrives late – a higher percentage than any other age group.
Senate Bill 29, which Gov. Brown also signed last year, will allow an absentee ballot to be counted if it arrives up to three days after election day. That should help somewhat to address the late-ballot issue. But that is not the point; tackling low levels of youth engagement in the electoral process is. That will require upgrading civics education on high school campuses. Civics has suffered as a result of the nation’s preoccupation with holding students and schools “accountable” for how they perform on tests of math and English language arts.
That is why the Power of Democracy project, whose goal is to promote “civic learning” in K-12 schools around the state, holds so much promise. Six counties – the most recent being Alameda County just last Friday – are forming “Civic Learning Partnerships” to convince school boards to implement civic engagement strategies that have been shown to be especially effective.
Civics education efforts like these will only be effective if they honestly address the multiple reasons young people – and voters of all ages – are alienated from the electoral process in ever larger numbers.
“If Selma taught us anything, it’s that our work is never done,” President Barack Obama said in Selma last week in one of his most eloquent speeches. “The American experiment in self-government gives work and purpose to each generation.”
For the most part, young people have yet to embrace that purpose. Typically the teeth-gnashing about how few of them vote occurs around the time of every election. But by then it is too late to do anything about it. Identifying ways to engage potential youth voters – and how schools can be more effective in doing so – must be a multi-year activity that should concern every advocate of democracy, regardless of party affiliation.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that AB 1817, authored by Assemblyman Jimmy Gomez, was authored by Sen. Alex Padilla. Padilla authored SB 35, so called “motor voter” legislation involving the Department of Motor Vehicles.