But across the nation and particularly in California, young voters mostly haven’t. A dismal 8.2% of the state’s eligible 18-to-24-year-olds voted in November 2014, the last statewide general election, making up just 4% of voters that year. Nearly half of young people statewide didn’t even bother to register to vote.
Two UC Berkeley students are looking to change that.
A new proposed law drafted by the Berkeley law students and co-authored by a pair of Bay Area legislators would automatically register students at the state's public colleges and universities when they sign up for classes online.
The state already is on the cusp of implementing its new automated “motor voter” registration law that could place millions of new voters on the rolls.
But this new effort is aimed at getting the youth vote — which, while much smaller, has been perennially pegged as a sort of sleeping giant — to turn out in bigger numbers.
“The biggest key with any constituency is meeting people where they’re at, and young people are a demographic that is so reliant on technology,” said Paul Monge, 26, in his first year at UC Berkeley Law.
Over his recent winter break, Monge was mulling how to convince his peers to participate in elections. He and classmate Cindy Dinh, 27, did some research and wasted no time putting their law classes to use, drafting legislative language and typing up a 6-page proposal to circulate among friends for feedback.
By early February, they'd met with several lawmakers in Sacramento and submitted the proposal to Assemblyman David Chiu (D-San Francisco) as part of a “There Ought To Be a Law” contest.
Chiu and Assemblyman Rob Bonta (D-Alameda) plan to co-author the Student Voting Act based on Monge and Dinh's idea. Chiu has filed a placeholder bill with skeleton language.
"These students want to see more of their friends and colleagues registered to vote and educated about the voting process," Chiu said in a statement. "They did their research and found a great solution to get more young people registered and to the polls, and I look forward to working with them on this worthy effort."
California Secretary of State Alex Padilla said he has also been in talks with officials at the state's three public college systems to see what steps can be taken on a voluntary basis.
The idea of linking voter registration to class enrollment isn’t new. More than a decade ago, the state’s community colleges established a pilot program that mailed pre-filled voter registration cards to students who indicated online that they were interested. The program was discontinued in 2009.
Today, all three campus systems — the University of California, the California State University, and California Community Colleges provide links on their websites to the state’s online voter registration page. Last year, fewer than 15,000 were registered to vote that way — a drop in the bucket given there are more than 3.5 million eligible youth voters.
Monge, 26, has spent years as a student activist and organizer and says boosting voter turnout among young people is a crucial first step toward greater political sway over concerns like tuition hikes and student loan debt.
The only way to ensure elected leaders will listen to such concerns, Monge said, is for young people to vote “in blocs and en masse.”
Dinh said it makes sense to engage young people at a time when they’re learning and being exposed to new ideas more than ever before, and to help them apply that learning.
"This is step one,” Monge adds. “If we register, we can vote. If we vote, we can find allies, and if we have allies we can get the policies we want in place.”
It's not that simple.
Young people, especially college students, tend to be the most transient among eligible voters. They move often and don’t always know to change their address, meaning voter pamphlets and other election paraphernalia might be sent to their parents’ homes or lost in the mail.
And even with the advent of California’s new “motor voter” law, expected to be fully implemented by July 2017, many college students also are relatively new drivers who may not need to walk into a DMV for years, meaning they’re less likely to be captured by the state’s new automated voter registration system than others.
But colleges rely on accurate records to send students bills and other important mail, so it's a logical place to start, advocates say.
Voting rights activists and election officials hope that catching would-be voters early may help turn around the state’s shrinking voter participation on a larger scale.
“If you can get someone into the voting process when ... they’ve just turned 18 ... you can turn them into a lifelong voter,” said Kim Alexander, president of the California Voter Foundation. “We have this window of opportunity in 2016 to engage potentially millions of Californians who have never participated before. And we should make the most of that."
FOR THE RECORD
8:36 a.m.: An earlier version of this article identified Kim Alexander as executive director of the California Voter Project. She is president of the California Voter Foundation.
And while getting people to register to vote may not guarantee they actually show up on election day, Padilla said, it’s an important first step in engaging them.
People who don’t show up on voter rolls often have no idea an election is even happening, Padilla said recently at a forum on the future of California’s elections. They live “off the grid” in the political sense and don’t receive voter information guides, sample ballots or mail from campaigns.
Once a voter is added to the state’s database, “Guess what? They’ll get the sample ballot, they’ll get the voter information guide. If nothing else, it’s government’s job to say, ‘Hey, there’s an election coming up, and here’s what’s on the ballot.’”
It's unclear if Padilla will support the proposal, but voting rights activists say he's been increasingly supportive of the concept of automated student registration in recent months.
For more on California politics, follow me @cmaiduc