If the courts won’t give us fair elections, maybe our high schools will

Laura W. Brill, Special to CALmatters

The Supreme Court’s ruling that upheld partisan gerrymandering as a political practice for which there is no federal judicial remedy will be taken as a green light by some state legislatures to draw political maps to favor the party in power.

Even if that is not a risk to us in California, the case should serve as a wake-up call for those of us who believe courts should protect our democracy by striking down laws that are designed to interfere with the effective exercise of the right to vote.

Partisan gerrymandering is, by definition, a practice in which officials draw the maps for election districts  to entrench the political power of their party and to diminish the power of citizens who favor their opponents. 

District maps that are a product of partisan gerrymandering can concentrate political opponents in a small number of districts or can divide into multiple districts communities of opponents who would otherwise act together to elect candidates of their choice. State legislatures controlled by Democrats and Republicans have engaged in partisan gerrymandering. 

Partisan gerrymandering undermines our democracy because it can keep a party out of power even if that party has majority support in the affected area. 

If courts and state legislatures won’t give us fair elections, we have to do the work ourselves to make our democracy work better. 

The single biggest thing every one of us can do to accomplish that result is register as many eligible citizens to vote as possible and turn them out to vote.  In particular, we need to get young people registered to vote and make sure they turn out.  

Approximately 3.5 million students graduated from high school this year. Another 3.5 million will graduate by next summer. In California, more than 400,000 young people turn 18 every year. We need their participation and engagement now more than ever. 

In most parts of the country, the infrastructure is not in place to make sure young people register to vote. In 2017, the Pew Charitable Trusts reported that fewer than 10% of Americans they surveyed were asked to register to vote at school or as part of a class.

Many school districts have no budget, no training and no plan to promote voter registration. California and about a dozen other states allow students to preregister to vote at age 16. Those who preregister are automatically registered to vote when they turn 18.

Only 14% of 16- and 17-year-olds in California are preregistered. Other states that offer preregistration, such as Oregon and Colorado have rates that hover around 30%, double California’s rate.  

What keeps young people from voting cannot be explained by stereotypes about teenage apathy. Real structural obstacles exist. Some are easy to overcome. Others are not.

One easy step in overcoming the barriers to registration is simply asking students to register to vote. Better yet, students can ask each other. We know this works. 

In Southern California, peer-to-peer voter registration drives have led to hundreds of registrations and preregistrations each in schools from Compton to San Clemente. The main ingredients for success are purpose and planning. Add clipboards, voter registration forms, posters, stickers and a candy bowl, and a drive is good to go.  

Legislation introduced earlier this year, Assembly Bill 773 by Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, would require school districts to offer more meaningful access to and information about voter registration for high school students and provides a mechanism for reimbursement for the costs of implementing a meaningful program.

Laws like this and the energy of students who care about their future have the power to help promote fair elections. If the courts will not protect us, maybe our high schools will.

Laura W. Brill is a lawyer in Los Angeles and the founder and director of The Civics Center, a nonprofit, nonpartisan project of Community Partners, dedicated to building the foundations of youth civic engagement and voter participation in high schools, [email protected] She wrote this commentary for CALmatters.

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