The great surprise of the November election was the strength of the youth vote. Most pundits and analysts had counted them out for 2012 expecting the youth electorate to deflate from its gains in 2008. But it turned out that without young voters age 18 to 24, President Barack Obama would have lost key battleground states and possibly the presidency. In California, Proposition 30 in which voters approved taxes to increase education funding might not have prevailed.
In the end, the election proved significant for a segment of voters who historically have been only a footnote in most election results. Recent research by the California Civic Engagement Project of the University of California, Davis, Center for Regional Change found that young people now make up 11 percent of California's registered electorate. Boosted by the implementation of online registration, there are now 2 million registered voters age 18 to 24 in California an increase of nearly 60 percent during the past decade.
These numbers don't tell the whole story, though. While the growing youth vote is impressive, not all young people have opportunities to transform the electorate with their vote. Many are still being left out. Young people who register to vote are demographically different in terms of level of education and income than those who do not vote. College students are overrepresented among young voters; those with no college experience are greatly underrepresented.
Notably, registration gains among young people are occurring just as they are becoming increasingly disillusioned with the traditional political and electoral process. Recent polls found young people less "enthusiastic" over what they perceived as a confusing and divisive presidential race something many analysts cited in predicting low turnout.
But rather than checking out of politics, young voters took action. They exercised a political voice on their own terms, increasingly registering outside the major political parties.
Young people are the only age group in California whose registration is below 40 percent Democratic. These voters are only 21 percent Republican. Twenty-nine percent are registered as "no party preference." And in 15 counties, including Orange and San Diego, young adults who registered with "no political preference" outnumbered those who said they were Democrat or Republican.
These numbers are shifting the overall political makeup of California's registered electorate, driving the decline of major party registration.
According to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University, it is estimated that nationally, 50 percent of eligible young people turned out to vote in 2012, close to the 52 percent who voted in 2008. However, 66 percent of eligible young people with college experience voted in 2012 compared with 35 percent who had no college experience.
In California's diverse population, more young people of color don't go to college and have lower incomes, with many underrepresented young adults residing in communities that have some of the highest drop-out rates and lowest college-going rates. These young people often have limited opportunities to participate in policy decisions that affect their lives and their communities.
This participation gap is truly an opportunity gap. Even with the recent addition of online voter registration, which young people took advantage of in large numbers during the 2012 election, California's electoral system is still challenging to access. Research shows that underrepresented youths are motivated to participate civically in many forms, not just voting but face a lack of opportunities to learn about and navigate our political structures.
It is critical that we educate and reach out to young people before their 18th birthday. Preregistration and high school civics education are highly effective ways to reach the young, particularly underrepresented youths of color, before they become eligible to vote. We know that when schools are involved in preregistration, far more successful registration results occur.
California Elections Code and federal law already recognize this. Both call for registration outreach programs for high schools. But in reality, resources dedicated to registration outreach can vary greatly by county school districts and registrar's offices. California is one of a handful of states that allow preregistration of 17-year-olds who will be 18 at the time of the next election, but this option is little known and seldom exercised.
Failing to access potential voters at this point in their lives is a missed opportunity.
California could pay a steep price for its failure to engage its diverse youth population. Our state must improve how it engages young people in early and meaningful connections to the electoral process, particularly for those in underserved communities, so that they will engage in the political process both early and later in life.
Closing this participation gap will have a significant effect on the legitimacy and effectiveness of our state's democratic process. California needs the voices of all its residents, not just those with college educations and economic means, in its electoral system.