In the 2014 elections, California had dismally low voter turnout, especially among young people. Fewer than 16 percent of eligible 18- to 24-year olds cast their ballots in the election, and only about half even registered to vote. Among eligible youth, underrepresented population groups were the least likely to become registered voters, a serious problem for a state as diverse as California, where Latino, African American, Asian American/Pacific Islander and other non-White communities comprise a growing majority of the state’s youth population.
It will take new steps to ensure that the voices of all eligible young Californians are represented in the state’s democracy. Fortunately, California is already making strides toward engaging young voters. With the passage of Assembly Bill 30 (2009) and Senate Bill 113 (2014), and the implementation of the new VoteCAL voter database (which as of this writing, is anticipated in fall 2016), 16- and 17-year-olds will be allowed to “preregister” to vote, ensuring that they are listed on the voter rolls the moment they turn 18.
Voter preregistration provides California with an opportunity to improve young voter participation, but state and local officials must take proactive steps in order to make preregistration a success.
Preregistering young people to vote before they turn 18 boosts voter turnout and helps turn them into lifelong voters.
• Preregistration opens up new opportunities to register young people to vote—in high schools, in General Education Diploma (GED) programs, at community organizations or
locations, online through popular websites, and at the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV).
• Research shows allowing preregistration can increase young voter turnout by up to 13 percentage points.
• People who vote at an early age are more likely to stay engaged and vote in later elections.
Allowing preregistration is a critical first step towards engaging young people, but adopting policies that encourage preregistration is essential for making it effective. Conversations with state and local officials who have implemented voter preregistration in their jurisdictions reveal a common theme: close partnerships between elections officials, government institutions, schools, community organizations that are trusted by youth, parents and student volunteers are critical components of a successful preregistration program.
Several states with voter preregistration have implemented programs to help 16- and 17-year-olds take advantage of the ability to preregister.
• Florida: County Supervisors of Elections are required under state law to conduct outreach activities at every public high school and college campus and report voter education efforts to the Florida Office of the Secretary of State.
• Hawaii: The state Office of Elections runs a Young Voter Registration Program targeting juniors and seniors in high school. Youth engagement efforts have taken the form of school assemblies where music and popular culture are blended with voter registration instruction to engage with young people and encourage them to get involved.
• Louisiana: The state Office of Motor Vehicles is required to preregister 16- and 17-year-olds to vote when they apply for a driver’s license unless the applicant opts out of voter registration. While Louisiana just began preregistering 16-year-olds to vote in 2015, it has smoothly incorporated preregistration into this “motor voter” model.
States allowing voter preregistration also report a number of challenges when engaging young people.
• Many teens do not understand the preregistration process or what steps need to be taken in order to become a voter. This information is often absent from school civics curriculums.
• Many teens cannot be reached through schools or at the DMV, particularly populations that are already underrepresented in the electorate.
• Preregistered voters frequently move shortly after turning 18, and do not update their voter registration records with their new locations.
Organizations that work with youth to promote civic participation express concerns that preregistration, a process in which only U.S. citizens are eligible to participate, risks stigmatizing and alienating non-citizens. Because California is a very racially and ethnically diverse state, anticipating these challenges and developing careful plans to manage sensitive issues is critical.
California should learn from the experiences of other states and local youth leaders and develop its own set of “best practices” to maximize the positive impact of preregistration.
The state should implement practices that will make voter preregistration accessible to 16- and 17-year-olds. California should:
• Provide voter preregistration opportunities in the places 16- and 17-year-olds commonly go—from the DMV to high schools and GED programs.
• Include 16- and 17-year-olds in the implementation of California’s updated motor voter law. As of this writing, stakeholders are involved in discussions with the California Secretary of State and DMV about ensuring that opportunities for preregistration will be integrated into the new voter registration practices.
• Ensure that voter education and preregistration opportunities are offered beyond the traditional venues, including places such as community organizations that are trusted by youth, local government cultural and recreational programs, juvenile detention facilities and home schooling organizations. Youth services workers and community organizations can help involve hard-to-reach populations in programs such as Kids Voting to increase interest in and familiarity with elections. In addition, youth from traditionally under-represented groups should be reached in other settings where there is an emphasis on the value of civic participation, such as naturalization ceremonies.
• Make preregistration as digital-friendly as possible. Post prominent preregistration links online on webpages young people visit. Ensure easy access to mobile-optimized preregistration websites and mobile apps, which can provide election information and reminders about voting.
The state should work with schools to improve the voter education curriculum.
• The California State Board of Education should closely monitor the implementation of the California Department of Education’s History-Social Science Framework for curriculum, which was released in July 2016, to ensure that the opportunity for preregistration and voter registration are incorporated into classroom discussions of civic participation, including “Principles of American Democracy,” taught in grade 12. This should encompass information about how to properly fill out and submit the voter registration form, which may be paper or electronic, the eligibility requirements for registration and the benefits conferred by voting. Individual teachers should decide who should be responsible for presenting the information—students, community groups, elections officials or the teachers themselves.
• Comprehensive election education programs can increase youth interest in political issues and voting. The Secretary of State should encourage more schools to participate in the MyVote California Student Mock Election, where students can cast ballots for real candidates and practice voting. Mock elections should be preceded by classroom discussion of election topics. Ballot questions should mimic actual ballot items and may include additional questions of particular interest to California teens. Program participation rates and outcomes should be regularly assessed.
• The Secretary of State’s office should incorporate preregistration into annual High School Voter Education Weeks. In preparation for these events, elections staff should offer training for student volunteers to help run voter preregistration and registration drives on campus. To assess and improve program effectiveness, the office should regularly seek feedback from program administrators.
California should develop preregistration strategies that protect the privacy of non-eligible students, yet still provide ways for all students to become civically engaged. If schools decide to conduct preregistration activities within the classroom setting, it is critical that school administrators develop strategies to handle sensitive immigration status issues that protect the privacy of students who are not eligible to preregister. These strategies include ensuring that classroom presentations are conducted by educators, student leaders or representatives of community organizations who possess the cultural competency to discuss eligibility requirements in a manner that does not stigmatize non-citizen students. Presenters must clearly indicate that registering to vote is an option and is not required for any student. Schools can provide voter registration cards in the classroom, but students should have the opportunity to take the voter registration card home in case they have questions or need to check with their parents. Presenters must also emphasize that if students decide not to return completed registration forms, that information will not be shared with other students, school administration, or outside authorities. Finally, presenters should discuss the opportunity to register to vote in a context which emphasizes the full range of youth civic participation opportunities, including those available to non-citizens, such as volunteering as a poll worker.
The state should also take follow-up steps to increase the likelihood that preregistered voters will vote in the first election in which they are eligible to participate.
• Confirmation letters mailed to preregistered teens should explain in simple and welcoming language that they will be eligible to vote when they turn 18 and that it is their responsibility to keep their registration address information up to date. The letters should provide clear and simple instructions to preregistered teens about how to maintain their own records.
• Preregistered teens should receive follow-up emails and texts from officials at least three times:once immediately after their preregistration, again when they turn 18 to remind them that they are now eligible to cast a ballot, and a third time right before Election Day. The third email and text message should provide new voters with easy access to all information they need to know to cast their ballots.
All preregistration outreach and education efforts should be undertaken in a manner that recognizes the full diversity of California’s youth population. For example, the staff of schools or community programs that promote preregistration should reflect the racial and ethnic diversity of the youth the programs are trying to engage. These staff should be individuals who are viewed as “trusted messengers” by youth, who possess the cultural competency to effectively reach them. Institutions and organizations should consider using multiple approaches to preregistration outreach and education that take into account the diversity of the youth they serve. All preregistration materials and information should be accessible to youth with disabilities. In addition, election officials and administrators should reach out to organizations that conduct non-partisan voter registration and voter mobilization efforts among youth and encourage them to incorporate a preregistration component in their activities.
California should keep data on preregistration outcomes to help policymakers understand how well programs are working and which teens are not being reached.
Data should be publicly available and include preregistration rates by age, sex, race and ethnicity.