Major parties offer scant lure to youthful voters

Even though California has seen a decade of growth in the registration of young voters aged 18-to-24, fully two-thirds of the eligible youth population did not cast ballots in the last presidential election, according to a new study.


The California Civic Engagement Project at UC Davis also found that registration and turnout rates in the age group vary geographically within the state, with young registrants differing politically from the rest of the electorate and a growing number favoring “no party preference.”


The lack of engagement is a critical factor in dampening both parties’ new registrants. And that is unpleasant news for get-out-the-vote pros in both the Democratic and Republican parties.


The “younger registrants are identifying less with each of the state’s two major parties, registering as No Party Preference (NPP) in large numbers.  At 38.5% Democratic, 18-24 year-olds are the only age cohort below 40% Democrat. 18-24 and 25-34 year-olds hold significantly higher NPP registration than Republican registration— at 29.6% and 28.1%, respectively. Youth hold nearly double the Other Party registrants compared to the general registered population.”


“The rising youth electorate in California may not mean future growth in Democratic party registration rolls. If current trends continue, a younger electorate will mean even smaller percentages of both registered Democrats and Republicans— an accelerated decline in identification with the state’s two major parties,” the report noted.


Youthful voters have been credited with playing a significant role in the passage of Gov. Brown’s Proposition 30, which temporarily raised income and sales taxes to provide money for public education.


But young voters generally appear to be less engaged than is widely believed.


The CCEP reports that youth are driving the general electorate’s decline in major party registration. Using data from the secretary of state’s office, the nonpartisan research project reported that of the nearly 2 million young adult registrants in California aged 18-to-24, some 770,000 reported an affiliation with the Democratic Party, 440,000 young people identified “no party preference,” and young Republicans comprised 22 percent of the youth electorate with 430,000 registrants. The remaining 350,000 declined to state their preference or were divided among other parties, according to the study.


Last November, some 32.3 percent of the eligible voters in that age group actually voted, the researchers noted.


And no other age demographic in California ranks the Republican Party as third; the GOP ranks second in other categories.


“To try to spin those numbers would be delusional,” said Luis Alvarado, chair of the board of directors of the Republican National Hispanic Assembly of Greater Los Angeles.  “Certainly there are challenges for the Republican party in California when it comes to the youth vote.”


“There certainly has to be an investment of resources to ensure the ideology of the party is communicated effectively,” he added. “Strategically sometimes, people will run campaigns and they will look at certain demographics and feel that it’s not worth the investment to go after these voters because they have been proven to be unreliable in the past.”


Efforts are being made to engage young adult voters. A new senate bill sponsored by Secretary of State Debra Bowen, the state’s election officer, would allow teen-agers as young as 15 to pre-register to vote at the Department of  Motor Vehicles three years prior to voting eligibility.


If SB 113 were to pass, California teen-agers would be the youngest in the nation to be allowed to pre-register.  Currently, 17-year-olds can pre-register to vote in California.

“We would imagine that [SB 113] would potentially increase youth representation in the electorate but you would need sufficient resources around it for it to be effective. The reason we think that is because California already allows pre-registration of youth and it’s not something that is utilized,” said Mindy Romero, the founding project director of the CCEP.


“There’s little known about it. People don’t promote it, most teen-agers don’t know about it … At 15, you have a longer gap before they can even put it into action,” she added.

According to Romero, pre-registration can be a successful institutional entry point into civic life when outreach and voting education accompany pre-registration.


“If you haven’t done the work to make the [voting] process familiar, comfortable and give them a connection to their lives, how its relevant to them, then you could decrease your rates because you could have a lot of kids registered but don’t turn out,” Romero said. “It could skew the data, so we want to make sure we put some bite to it. Also, I wouldn’t want [pre-registration to be seen] as fixing the problem with [low] youth registration and participation.”


While there is little data to support the premise that pre-registration will drive up young adult registration and turnout, online registration is having a marked effect on California’s electorate.


Put into effect a month before the 2012 presidential election, online registration made up nearly 8 percent of all youth registration and significantly contributed to the growth of the youth electorate, according to the CCEP. Online civic activity is being seen a way to usher in more young adult voters.


But even the growth of online registration may not address the disparities across California counties where San Diego, Los Angeles and the North State see the lowest rates of registration and turnout, some holding a low of 37 percent registration. These counties also high have the highest high-school dropout rates and the poorest outcomes for youth.


The Bay Area, portions of the Sierra Nevada foothills east of Sacramento and Marin County have the highest percentage of electoral engagement, boasting a high of 95 percent registration rate in some regions.


“One of the reasons why Placer County’s youth registration is so much higher than the rest of the state is because we understand the county register’s office actually goes into high schools [there] and registers kids,” Romero said. “They get a ton of kids registered. Placer also has one of the highest turnout rates.”


Field research on school-based voting performed by the CCEP revealed that in Santa Clara and Monterey counties, many government classes do not teach students about voting.

“If there was a sustained partnership between high schools and county registers of voters, it could be the dedicated outreach staff who are hosted by the teachers,” said Jonathan Fox, advisory committee member for the CCEP and department chair of Latin American studies at UC Santa Cruz.


Future analysis by the CCEP will focus on the state’s youth electorate and include identifying the variation in registration within the state’s diverse youth electorate, particularly minority youth whose party registration leans toward the Democratic Party compared to white non-Hispanic youth.


“Research tells us, if youth does not get connected while they are still young, then they are less likely to come into the electorate later,” Romero said. “We’re not just not having representation of youth that we don’t get; the ones we don’t get are less likely to come back into the fold. It skews our electorate to [measure] those who are more inclined to vote.”


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