Marcos Bretón

Marcos Breton: Increasing engagement one voter at a time

Few signs of societal erosion are more dispiriting than an apathetic electorate amid important times.

This is California today, a state that used to vote above the national average two decades ago and has been slipping ever since. It’s not just young people. With the exception of senior citizens, the majority of us don’t vote. And if we don’t vote, then we either don’t care or we don’t think we matter – a bleak picture either way.

Mindy Romero has dedicated her career to pushing back against apathy.

She spent Tuesday, National Voter Registration Day, on the pastoral quad of the UC Davis campus, where she morphed from demographic researcher – a self-described “data geek” – into a kind of perfume salesperson peddling the sweet smell of democracy.

She and about a half-dozen others, some from Romero’s California Civic Engagement Project, were doing the hard work of registering voters one at a time. Cajoling was involved and encouragement and, yes, salesmanship.

“It’s like sales and marketing,” Romero says with a chuckle devoid of judgment or discouragement. “It’s amazing how many people aren’t embarrassed at all that they are not registered to vote.”

You have to start somewhere. California’s voter turnout in 2014 was abysmal. For example, only 8.2 percent of Californians between 18 and 24 bothered to cast a ballot.

At Davis, Romero met a young woman who knew billionaire Donald Trump was running for president – she had become aware of this on Tumblr, the social media platform – and was bothered by Trump’s strident comments. But the young student, who ended up registering, wasn’t quite sure when the next presidential election was going to be. (It’s November 2016, in case you didn’t know.)

Another young woman registered to vote, in part, because her mother wanted her to.

“She told me her mother was going to be very happy,” said Romero, a Modesto native who left the San Joaquin Valley to follow a path of academia and advocacy to Davis.

Romero founded CCEP to research civic engagement. In her early 40s, she has become a national authority on voting trends, even though her real goal is to provide the data that grass-roots groups could use to set voter mobilization targets.

It can be discouraging work. Romero doesn’t sugarcoat the numbers that show a downward trend in voting. In the 2012 presidential election, California’s turnout rate was 55.5 percent, below the national average of 58.9 percent and in the bottom 20 percent of states. The numbers were even lower for last year’s midterm elections.

Most troublesome of all is the nonrepresentation of Latinos and Asians. Only 17.3 percent of Latinos and 18.4 percent of Asians voted in 2014.

“We shouldn’t have any group that is underrepresented,” Romero said. “When you do, you don’t have a democracy in my book.”

Why should people care about low Latino voting rates? Because a population that is already 39 percent of the state will only grow. As the Latino population grows and Latino apathy grows, overall apathy will grow as well.

“If that happens, our democracy becomes more anemic, less representative,” Romero said.

Gov. Jerry Brown is considering signing a bill that would automatically register every eligible citizen to vote when he or she goes to the Department of Motor Vehicles to get a new license. Automatic registration would clear some barriers, presumably boosting voter participation among some underrepresented communities.

But Romero and people like her are battling a greater foe of democracy. “We’re trying to convince people that their vote matters,” she said. “We have to make them want to vote. They ask why it matters. They don’t see political candidates in their communities. They are disconnected from the political process.”

Romero has cared about these issues since she was a child captivated by the 1984 Republican and Democratic national conventions, which she watched avidly because they were on network television that summer. She had no choice. Her family didn’t have cable.

“As a child I thought, ‘If the conventions were on TV, they must be important,’ ” she said. “I saw people on TV talking about issues. But I didn’t see the people they were talking about, the people in need.”

For the past 20 years, she has drilled down in the voter participation figures and found that except for people 65 and older, the numbers are soft. So far, in a wide open field, the main driver of interest in the 2016 presidential election is Trump and the fascination of what he will do or say next.

Romero said she hopes her work will lead to greater voter outreach and help non-voters connect with issues. It begins with the kids in the quad at Davis, who have caught a bit of Trump and wondered what was going on. At the start of a new academic year, the Davis campus is buzzing, and civic engagement competes for time with new classes and student activities.

Yet Romero and others were there, trying to persuade nonvoters to take part in the democratic process.

“We’re hoping that our research is one part of the puzzle to greater civic engagement,” Romero said “You can’t give up. We had a great day on the quad. We signed up a some several first-time voters. How awesome is that?”