Orange County set a participation record in the last presidential election, with more than 80% of registered voters casting ballots, the highest percentage in 40 years. High schools in the OC, however, are not setting any records on a key test of engaging young adults in the political process.
Students in California can pre-register to vote at age 16. That means that when they turn 18, they will automatically be able to vote in the next election. Very few people know that the pre-registration option exists. High schools, where 16-year-olds spend most of their days, generally do little or nothing to inform their students about pre-registration or to help them pre-register.
Low registration and pre-registration rates translate into low voting rates. In 2014, just 8.2% of eligible youth aged 18-24 voted in the 2014 statewide election – a mere 285,000 of 3.5 million eligible young people. While voter turnout of all age groups improved in the 2016 presidential election, only 53% of California millennials (ages 18-34) have registered to vote and only one in four is a likely voter.
Since 2003, state law has required the California Secretary of State to provide voter registration materials to public high schools. California lawmakers amended the law in 2014 to encourage high schools to create more opportunities for students to register to vote, including through community emails and website links.
In October 2016, Secretary of State Alex Padilla sent out questionnaires to California high schools asking about their plans for voter registration leading up to the November election. Only 260 out of more than 1300 – fewer than 20% – even bothered to respond.
The Secretary of State has been encouraging easy, inexpensive, and sensible measures to promote registration on-line. But visit your nearest public high school website, and the odds are you will find no information about registering to vote.
In response to public records requests, the office of the Orange County Registrar of Voters provided data on OC pre-registration figures. As of mid-August 2017, just over one thousand of the many thousands of eligible students in OC have pre-registered.
Irvine is ahead of the OC curve, with designated administrators responsible for high school voter registration efforts, and a city-run High School Youth Action Team, which runs voter registration drives and seeks to engage youth in leadership roles in the community. Even Irvine, however, with just 187 voter pre-registrations, could step up its game. Other cities have even fewer students pre-registered to vote. Tustin, 45; Huntington Beach, 44; Fullerton, 36, Newport Beach, 26.
If we want to look on the bright side, at least we can marvel at the tremendous opportunities for improvement.
Just about everyone who just started senior year this August will be 18 or older by the time November 2018 rolls around. Orange County has some of the most competitive congressional, state and local races in the country. Getting these students registered today could make a critical difference in that election.
With school underway and with High School Voter Education Weeks starting throughout California on September 18, it’s time for us to urge our high schools to do better. If you are a parent, please speak up at school board and PTA meetings and contact principals and superintendents. Teachers can make sure their students know pre-registration is an option and can explain the mechanics of getting registered and casting a ballot.
Students can learn valuable leadership skills organizing registration drives for current students and helping campaigns to get out the vote. And their spontaneous social media posts could be more effective in motivating their peers than mass mailings of candidate attack ads.
So for all those high schoolers wondering what a real leadership opportunity looks like and when it will come along, the answer may be right in front of us. As William Mulholland said as water began flowing from the Owens Valley to Southern California: There it is. Take it.
Laura W. Brill is a co-founding partner at Kendall Brill & Kelly LLP, a Los Angeles based law firm. She writes regularly about democracy and youth issues.