In summary

If we care about young people having a voice in elections, schools can start taking their students’ role in our democracy seriously.

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By Laura W. Brill, Special to CalMatters

Laura W. Brill is a lawyer in Los Angeles, a former law clerk to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and the founder and executive director of The Civics Center, a nonprofit nonpartisan organization, laura@thecivicscenter.org.

Fifty years ago, California ratified the 26th Amendment, the Constitutional provision that gives young people the right to vote beginning at age 18.

Today, the news about youth voting points in two opposite directions. On the one hand, young people turned out in record numbers in 2020, overcoming enormous obstacles to do so. On the other hand, a significant and persistent gap exists between youth voter registration rates and rates for older voters. This gap stifles the voice of young voters. 

Four million young people turn 18 every year, and the vast majority are eligible to register to vote before they graduate from high school. A study at USC’s Center for Inclusive Democracy recently reported an astonishing 30-percentage point gap in voter registration rates between 18- and 24-year-olds and 25- and 34-year-olds in California. The Civics Center recently reported that as of February 2021, only 11% of 16- and 17-year-olds in California are preregistered to vote. 

Gaps like these typically result from voter suppression. We’re accustomed to applying that term to Georgia, Arizona and Texas, but it’s fair to use the term to describe how our high schools here in California treat young voters, as well. If that sounds provocative, hear me out.

First, as you read this, do you realize that we are in the midst of California’s legislatively designated High School Voter Education Weeks, a time when high schools are supposed to teach about voting and help get their students registered? If the answer is no, you are not alone. Most schools do nothing to implement the law, and the Legislature, while coming up with a good name and a good idea, has not provided funding for schools to put them into practice.

Second, even apart from special weeks, most high schools, at least in Los Angeles and likely the state as a whole, do nothing or next to nothing to help their students register. How do I know this? Because the organization I founded, The Civics Center, sent public records requests to every high school district in Los Angeles County and asked them. Few of them were able to show any meaningful program in the past two years to get their students registered.

Third, as indicated above, California law allows preregistration beginning at age 16, which holds great promise, but not if the law goes unused. You may object that it’s not fair to blame high schools, and for the most part I agree. They are overburdened as it is, especially because of the pandemic. State government should be providing funding, but instead it has done the opposite. For example, current state law requires local outreach efforts to encourage voter registration if funding is available. But year after year, the Legislature has voted to suspend funding, which has the effect of eliminating the local requirement to conduct the outreach. 

The most equitable way to solve the problem is to provide funding at the state level. School leaders should be pressing for this, but even without special funding, there is a lot that school leaders can do. It is not hard or expensive to include voter registration information in schoolwide email messages that are going out anyway. 

The secretary of State’s website has lots of material available that is free. It is not hard to spend 10 minutes in a class talking about how to fill out the forms. The secretary of State has published guidance for teachers and administrators. It’s not hard to designate a student voter outreach coordinator or to promote registration through competitions with other schools or by providing a seal of civic engagement on a diploma for outreach efforts.

If we care about young people having a voice in the gubernatorial recall that we will likely see later this year, and in every election thereafter, schools can start taking their own students’ role in our democracy seriously and help them register to vote. 

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Laura W. Brill has also written about the youth turnout for the 2020 election.

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