California Teens are Pre-Registering in Droves. But Will They Actually Vote?
For Zoe Martinez, the path to adulthood goes through the voting booth.
“I’m very excited about the upcoming election in November,” said Martinez, a 17-year-old from Riverside. “I feel like now that we’re getting to the age of being able to make decisions for ourselves.”
Martinez helped run an on-campus voter registration event at Colony High School in Ontario last week. It’s not a tough sell, judging by recently released data from the California Secretary of State’s office.
A state program that launched in September of 2016 has signed up more than 100,000 young people to pre-register as voters, 16- and 17-year-olds who are now eligible for the franchise the day they turn 18. As of this month that included more than 26,000 teens who had pre-registered in Los Angeles County, about 7,300 in Orange County, about 5,900 in Riverside County, and just under 2,700 in San Bernardino County.
The pre-registration surge, along with a groundswell of student activism in response to President Donald Trump’s policies on everything from immigration to the environment, and the mass shooting this year at a high school in Parkland, Fla., raises the prospect that first-time-eligible voters will turn out in greater-than-usual numbers for California’s June 5 primary and the Nov. 6 general election.
Though the “youth vote” has long been touted as a potential difference maker – only to fizzle out when first-time eligible voters fail to come to the polls – experts say this cycle might be different.
“This year there’s a better-than-even chance that the 18- to 21-year-old group will beat their previous (turnout) records because they’ve been motivated to act by their peers, and by events that are affecting them directly,” said Renee Van Vechten, a political science professor at the University of Redlands.
Some students say they’re eager to cast a ballot.
“Voting is something incredibly important to me, being a first-generation American with parents who aren’t able to vote,” said Carla Gonzalez, a junior at Valley View High School in Moreno Valley who pre-registered when she turned 16.
“It is a privilege that I must take advantage of since I have such easy access to it,” she added. “Having my voice heard in the election process is an American duty that I want to fulfill.”
Colony students last month joined a nationwide school walkout, inspired by the Feb. 14 Parkland shooting in which 17 died, to call for stricter gun laws. Organized marches connected to Parkland have included voter sign-up actions, most focused on first-time eligible voters.
“They definitely realized that they wanted their voice to be shared within the government, even if they weren’t (yet) able to vote,” said Daniella Sanchez of Ontario, an 18-year-old senior at Colony who helped organized the voter registration event. “There’s more people talking about politics (on campus) now.”
Post-Parkland activism appears to have spurred more pre-registrations, Secretary of State Alex Padilla said in an interview with EdSource.
“Prior to the Parkland shooting … we were averaging about 1,000 pre-registrations a week,” Padilla, a Democrat, was quoted as saying. “The week of the school walkouts, March 14, that figure tripled. And same with the week of the March for Our Lives, and even last week.”
“There is no doubt in our minds that young people across California are ready to take their power to the polls,” Luis Sanchez, co-executive director of Mobilize the Immigrant Vote/Yvote, said in a news release.
“Since 2016, YVote registered and pre-registered over 25,000 young voters. And in response to the recent events in Parkland, young people are organizing and registering thousands of voters in communities across California.”
It’s unclear if it will matter.
A Pew Research Center study released this month found that the voting power of Millennials could rival Baby Boomers, an age cohort that has driven American politics for four decades. The wild card is that Baby Boomers – to date – have been more likely than younger people to actually follow through. In the 2016 election, 69 percent of 52- to 70-year-old voters cast ballots, compared to 51 percent for 20- to 35-year-olds, according to Pew.
“Turnout among young voters usually lags behind 44- to 64-year-olds in presidential elections by 20 to 24 percentage points,” said Doug Hess, assistant professor of political science at Grinnell College in Iowa. In mid-terms, he added, the gap is 30 points or more.
The current momentum behind voter turnout, Hess said, reminds him of 2000 and 2004, when turnout by 18- to 24-year-old voters rose 9 percent.
“That increase was greater than the increase in other age groups at that time,” he said.
But young voter turnout for the 2014 mid-terms, he added, was the lowest in decades.
“In the end, it all depends not only on the mobilization of youth, but also on the level of support or dissatisfaction of Trump voters,” Hess said.
“If those past (Trump) supporters sit November out, or vote against Republican members of Congress, a return to the youth engagement of a decade ago could be powerful.”
Ernest McGowen, an associate professor of political science at the University of Richmond in Virginia, is skeptical that young voters will turn out in greater numbers this election cycle.
“While there are often issues, like Parkland, that are particularly important to young voters, and there have been periodic mobilization drives targeted toward young people, in this case against Trump … their turnout numbers never rise above where we would expect given their lower levels of income and education.”
Join the party?
A surge in young voters is likelier to benefit Democrats because young people tend to be more liberal, experts said. Martinez, who describes herself as a conservative Republican, is an exemption.
“To be honest, in my government class, I feel like there’s only three of us” who are conservative, she said.
Van Vechten noted a recent Public Policy Institute of California survey showing 18- to 34-year-olds overwhelming opposed to Trump’s plan to build a border wall and his crackdown on illegal immigration as well as the GOP tax bill.
That said, 43 percent of teens who pre-registered between September 2016 and April 2 did not choose a political party, according to numbers from Padilla’s office. Thirty-eight percent pre-registered as Democrats while 10 percent pre-registered as Republicans.
Gonzalez, the Valley View student, said she pre-registered as a no-party-preference voter “because I don’t have a particular political preference … I’d rather get information from all sides rather than just be focused on information from one perspective.”
Millennials are less inclined to choose parties, Van Vechten said. “Youth tend to be more liberal than conservative, but party-shy,” she said.
Voters tend to get their party affiliation from their parents, but research shows party ties can fray with age, Van Vechten said. “Over time, from a macro perspective, party ID has declined, and there has been a loosening of political ties to parties.”
Political strategist Christopher Metzler sees younger voters spurring a shift away “from the formal party system as we know it. Right now, we’re so entrenched in parties and party politics. We’ll see a move from that.”
Young voters tend to become Republicans as they age “but they still take their more liberal/tolerant ideas, and shift the social bases of the Republican Party,” McGowen said.
“So, while the young people will likely move to the Republican Party, the party will continue to get more tolerant about civil rights issues socially.”
‘Hear about issues’
Voter outreach campaigns aimed at younger voters can’t use the same stale approach, Metzler said.
“A lot of the young voters are issues voters. They want to hear about issues and hear solutions,” he said. “They are less concerned about the salacious politics of personal destruction.”
He added: “There can be a surge in (young) voter turnout. That’s going to depend on the messages, the messengers, and the mode of outreach … It’s great that there’s an increase in registration. That’s not the only issue though.”
Gonzalez said many of her peers “don’t see the value in the voting process, as they feel that their vote doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things due to what we’ve seen in recent elections, such as the presidential election” when Trump won the presidency despite losing the popular vote.
“Finding the importance of our voices in a society that patronizes us for voicing our opinions on social issues is difficult… The process can be disheartening,” Gonzalez said.
“I feel as though for better voter turnout during elections, especially among younger demographics, the message needs to be conveyed that our voices actually do matter since we are the future of the nation.”
California allows 16- and 17-year-olds to pre-register to vote. They will automatically be eligible to vote when they turn 18.
HOW: Go to registertovote.ca.gov. Pre-registrants must be U.S. citizens and California residents and not currently imprisoned or on parole for a felony conviction. They also cannot be barred from voting because of a court declaration of mental incompetency.
Starting Jan. 1, 2019 the state of California will automatically pre-register 16- and 17-year-olds when they get a driver’s license or state I.D.
Sixteen and 17-year-olds who lack a signature-on-file with the Department of Motor Vehicles must print out a paper form and mail it to the county elections office.
TO GET INVOLVED? The Secretary of State has set up a website, highschool.sos.ca.gov, to connect youth with opportunities for civic engagement.