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Young Californians are politically aware, they just don't vote. Here's how we turn them out

Young Californians are politically aware, they just don't vote. Here's how we turn them out
Volunteers work their cell phones to encourage young voters to vote in the Boyle Heights on Nov. 3, 2016. (Los Angeles Times)

In California, there are more than 2.2 million registered voters age 25 or younger. How many of them turn out on election day will depend on how hard the rest of us work to mobilize them.

We spent the summer leading a research project that involved holding voter workshops and registering student-age voters across the Central Valley — and we saw a lot of enthusiasm among this notoriously low-turnout age group. A new statewide poll also found that 72% of 18- to 24-year-olds say they will “definitely” vote November. But we also know that just 16% of Californians in that age group voted in the June 5 primary.

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What can narrow that gap between intent and turnout? The poll (commissioned by Power California, a network of nonprofits focused on young voter engagement) took a close look at highly politically engaged 18- to 24-year-olds — those who vote at rates similar to senior citizens. That offers some clues.

Many young people don’t know very much about the relevance of local and state elections to their everyday lives.


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These young people volunteer in their community, boycott products for political reasons and attend protests. They strongly identify with the social movements of our time: Nearly half support Black Lives Matter and a majority back environmental activism and the fight for LGBTQ equality. Their top issues are immigration and housing, and they aren’t impressed by the efforts of state government to improve the quality of life in California.

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In short, they see how politics connects to their lives.

Those findings reflect a lot of what we saw and heard from the 25 UC Santa Cruz and UC Merced students on our research team who were testing out ways to mobilize this untapped portion of the electorate. They spent time in high schools, college classrooms and community centers talking about how and why to vote — and when young people made that connection, a light bulb went on.

Initially, many young people don’t know very much about the relevance of local and state elections to their everyday lives. So in our voter education workshops, we gave concrete examples. In Kern County, team members asked who wanted to attend college and whether they were worried about how expensive that might be. Hands shot up. Then we told them about the College for All ballot initiative — the one that didn’t get enough voter signatures to qualify for the ballot this year. Or if they said their vote does not matter, we told them about the big hike in the sales tax up in Delano that passed in 2016 by just 66 votes.

Young Californians also need specific orientation to the process of voting. Half of Californians 18-24 are either an immigrant or the child of an immigrant, so they haven’t necessarily had a parent who knows the ropes when it comes to voting here. Unfortunately most schools offer little voter education to students, even though we know that regular voting habits are formed early. Investments we make now in civics education will help give the state a more representative electorate for decades to come.

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Candidates and campaigns have a role to play, too. They can increase youth turnout by addressing the issues that matter to these voters and by targeting young people for political outreach. In the Power California Poll, among those who voted in the June primary, around 70% said they were personally contacted by email, text or mail about the election.

For example, the young people who define themselves as part of the Black Lives Matter movement should hear from campaigns for sheriffs, district attorneys and judges about how candidates will address racial profiling and disparities in arrests and incarceration. These officials control the local criminal justice system, and that’s an issue that young voters care about.

Likewise, the cost of housing is also a top issue for young people, which should be of little surprise. A California State University survey found that more than one out of 10 students experienced homelessness within the last year. Limited housing and high rents affect youth and their families. Proposition 10 — which would allow cities to implement or retool rent control — will be of interest to young voters, and therefore campaigns should target them. Additionally, state legislators should publicize their stances on the housing shortage.

We can no longer pretend that young people don’t care about politics. Recent election results in New York, Florida and Georgia appear to show that when candidates present a bold political vision on issues that matter to them, young voters will turn out in greater numbers. In the Central Valley, we saw that young Californians are ready to vote too.

Veronica Terriquez is an associate professor of sociology at UC Santa Cruz. Randy Villegas is a doctoral student in politics at UC Santa Cruz.

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