The California Influencer Series

Colin Kaepernick didn’t vote. Why it’s hard to get young people to cast ballots

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The California Influencers Series

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California Influencers this week discussed the millennial vote: What discourages them from voting? What would motivate them to cast their ballots?

Eloy Oakley – Chancellor, California Community Colleges

The most significant deterrent that keeps young people from voting, in my opinion, is the lack of confidence young people have in politicians and the disconnect that they feel in the political process. The two party system has polarized the electorate so much that young people do not feel that their views and values are represented by our system of politics. The best way to motivate young people to vote is to open up the parties to a spectrum of viewpoints and recruit candidates that connect with the values of young voters.

Janet Napolitano – President, University of California

One of the key deterrents to young people voting is the difficulty in registering and knowing where to vote. Students of the University of California, for example, may live on campus but typically their place of residence for voting purposes is the home of their parents. So not only must they register, they also must request a vote by mail ballot. We have an extensive campaign to register student voters underway right now. One action some of our campuses have undertaken is to provide a link to the Secretary of State’s web site on the documents for class registration. Beyond logistics, many student voters (in fact voters in general) do not fully appreciate that their vote really matters and that the candidates who are elected can directly affect their lives. Students have a direct interest, for example, in having a state Legislature and a governor who fully support the university. Educating students about the importance of voting and their role in the electoral process is one of the most important things we can do.

Timothy White – Chancellor, California State University

Young people are passionate and opinionated about today’s most critical issues, but it’s important to remember that voting is one of our most fundamental rights and responsibilities as Americans. While activism is an important element of civic engagement, voting is the most effective way to create change. But the first step is to register. With voter registration services available on all 23 campuses, Cal State is playing an important role in the drive to encourage thousands of young Californians to register by the October 22 deadline. A mutual commitment between the CSU Office of the Chancellor, the California State Student Association and the California Secretary of State has also encouraged each campus to develop a comprehensive plan to support student voter education, registration and turnout efforts — resulting in young Californians having an even greater voice in the democratic process.”

Angie Wei – Chief of Staff, California Labor Federation

Young people don’t think that their vote makes a difference. Voting makes you part of the establishment. Our challenge – how to make voting an act of resistance.

Tavae Samuelu – Executive Director, Empowering Pacific Islander Communities

I was just discussing this last night with a community organizer who works with young people! We are grappling with the tension of politicizing young people to understand the ways in which large government systems and institutions aren’t made to serve them...and then tell them they should vote anyway. Where I’ve seen traditional civic engagement efforts fail, is that they 1) only engage youth once a year; 2) assume that age or generational failures are the reason they don’t participate; and 3) emphasize voting as the only and most meaningful strategy without asking young people what issues matter to them most to learn more about their motivations.

Curt Pringle – Former Speaker, California State Assembly and Founder, Curt Pringle and Associates

Young people, just like many other potential voters need to see that voting has an impact on their lives – but also they need to see that it impacts things important to them. As young people learn how much government affects their lives and is actually involved in nearly every aspect of their lives, they will become more motivated. Two millennials recently told me that young people seek immediate gratification and are more enticed to march and “demonstrate” than they are to vote. Because they feel for that moment they are voicing their opinion on a cause and it feels good to be a part of something with their peers. Rather than understanding the importance of voting for the people who are responsible for addressing core issue or being in a position to fix them.

Barbara Boxer – United States Senator (1993-2017)

The best way to increase the young vote is to ensure that by the time they are eligible to vote, eighteen-year-olds have made the connection between their lives and who holds political power.

There is evidence that this is finally happening and we will only know on Election Day when we see if the very low turnout numbers for young people finally begin to increase.

It gave me great hope to see the young people who were directly impacted by gun violence in Florida make that connection. They are fanning out with others from other states, to try and make the case to people their age. They are passionate that only those who hear them should be elected at every level. They are directly taking on the National Rifle Association which has opposed almost every single common sense gun safety measure.

There are also young people who are galvanized by the issue of climate change. They are the ones who are going to reap the agony of giving up on Measures to reign in carbon pollution. They understand that this issue can be a win/win because strong support of clean energy will lead to jobs that can’t be exported, cleaner air, less asthma.

Education? Healthcare? Affordable housing? Equal rights? They are all on the table and young people are starting to get it.

We will know in several weeks if the dots have been connected.

Tom Campbell – Professor of Law and Professor of Economics, Chapman University

The staleness of the two major parties, and the negativity of their message, depress enthusiasm among young potential voters. The energy attached to a dynamic candidate with an optimistic message is the best way to increase that enthusiasm. Then-Senator Barack Obama had that energy in his first run for President. In my lifetime, Sen. Robert Kennedy had it too. When no candidate with such energy is on the ballot, appeals to party are insufficient to energize younger voters. There is no candidate on the ballot this November with that level of energy.

What energy there is, is negative. What is the Democrats’ message in California? It is all anti-Trump, all-the-time. What is the Republicans’ message? It is that President Trump’s detractors are leftists with naive affinity for socialism. With both sides going negative, I fear younger voters will not turn out to vote.

Karen Skelton – Founder and President, Skelton Strategies

Young people think their vote doesn’t matter. The large population in CA makes students think that 1 vote out of 40 million people doesn’t matter, as if they are crumbs falling from a sandwich. Voter registration fairs and rallies on campus plus the use of social media to make students realize every single vote counts, and tell stories of how (and something more current than the example from my day that 1 vote per precinct elected JFK.).

Eric Bauman – Chair, California Democratic Party

The single biggest barrier that discourages young people from voting is the feeling that they are totally powerless and disconnected from a system that has stacked the deck against them. Young voters have deep and genuine anxieties about the future, but they also have real aspirations that need to be prioritized and nurtured. Candidates who address these concerns have shown real success at the ballot box – think Bernie Sanders and Barack Obama. This is a classic “if you build it, they will come” situation. We need to give young voters a reason to believe they can restack the deck. That means making sure young voters understand the power they have and how they can use it. And not incidentally, Gavin Newsom has understood this better than anyone else in California, which is why his campaign is in such a formidable position to win from the start.

Les Simmons – Pastor, South Sacramento Christian Center

I think the most significant deterrent that discourages young people from voting is the fact that many feel that their ONE vote doesn’t truly matter and they haven’t seen or felt the impact of the vote lifting their communities forward. In many cases, especially this past presidential election, who they voted for wasn’t elected, and what they voted for didn’t pass or translate into real change. As a result, people opt out of voting. In this upcoming election it is vital that both ballot measures and folks running for office tap into the cultural language by empowering communities to lift their voice in ways they know how. We need to empower and equip community organizers to organize. We need to educate on how ballot measures affect the collective concerns of our community. And we have to recognize and speak to the vast differences of cultural language that are all saying the same thing “we want our voices heard”. While showing the importance of how the vote can ultimately lift and carry their voice forward.

Kristin Olsen – Stanislaus County Supervisor, Former California Assembly Republican Leader

My son says it’s because his generation is lazy, but I’m not quite so pessimistic. I think it’s more likely because they have other priorities and don’t believe their individual vote matters enough to take the time to vote. We need to work at the local grassroots level to demonstrate why their votes do, in fact, matter. There are many examples of contested races coming down to a difference of 100 votes or less. People need to be reminded of that over and over again and need to feel empowered in voting.

Daniel Zingale – Senior Vice President, California Endowment

This just in… Nearly half of more than 2,000 young Californians surveyed said current voting rules are too restrictive. But 68% believe voting makes a difference and 73% plan to vote in November. In this poll of 16-24 year-old Californians released by the statewide civic engagement organization Power California, young people identified the problems that are most likely to motivate them to vote. Topping their list were the issues of immigration, affordable housing and the environment. If we’re serious about wanting young Californians to vote, let’s listen to what they’re telling us. Remove unnecessary restrictions on voting, and prioritize the issues that show them voting can make a difference in their lives.

Lara Bergthold – Principal Partner, RALLY Communications

A lack of information is the biggest deterrent. No one wants to admit they don’t know how to register. And young people don’t vote if they feel like they don’t know enough about all the candidates and propositions to complete a ballot. This isn’t about getting an A on the test, it’s about participating and if you just go vote for one person that’s enough. Also, we need to make voter registration easier and more accessible so I 100% support online voter registration and same day voter registration in order to make it easier, especially for young people.

Adama Iwu – Co-Founder, We Said Enough and Vice President for State Government Relations and Community Outreach, Visa

Many young people say they don’t think their vote counts, but now more than ever, that can’t be farther from the truth. When I was in high school I participated in protests against Prop 187. That was a watershed moment for me personally, it drove home the fact that I had a voice and that as soon as I turned 18, it was critical for me to vote. It feels like we are in another one of those moments. My hope is that young people, no matter what their political leaning, find their voices and exercise their right to vote.

Amanda Renteria – Boardmember, Emerge America & Former Chief of Operations, California Department of Justice

A healthy democracy requires an engaged electorate. As a former teacher, I have seen the power of education. We should require a robust civic engagement curriculum in all high schools. It is critical for the future of our democracy to ensure students have an understanding of our system and their important role in it.

Catherine Lew – Principal and Co-Founder, Lew Edwards Group

Rather than having us answer this question, we should all be asking young people themselves! That’s why the campaigns I run include high school and college-age organizing efforts, with these young leaders represented on high-level campaign strategy sessions. For this question, I’m featuring responses from Commissioner Anthony Rocha, a Democrat from Salinas who was just 18 when appointed to a City Commission; now, at age 19, Anthony is a candidate in a local School Board election. Placentia City Councilmember Jeremy Yamaguchi – an Orange County Republican -- was elected to his seat in the first election he was eligible to vote in and was Mayor by the time he was 22. Said Commissioner Rocha, “Young people need actual seats at the table—not seats at the ‘kiddie’ table. The best way to motivate more young people to vote is to directly address the needs of youth.” Said Councilmember Yamaguchi, “For the ‘online,’ ‘on-demand’ generation, taking the time to vote is challenging. We must emphasize the long-term effects on an individual, community and entire country in the local choices we make in our elections.” I say: SacBee, it’s time to dedicate a page to youth voices! #rockthevote

Jim Boren – Executive Director, Fresno State’s Institute for Media and Public Trust

When election campaigns become a contest of which candidate is the most despicable, and not a debate of ideas, why would young people vote? They have grown up in an era when all they know is hateful politics of destruction. We must show young people that their votes count, and that they can change the tone of politics by demanding candidates speak about issues and not the vile scripts out-of-town consultants have handed them. We must do better.

Chet Hewitt – President and CEO, Sierra Health Foundation

In the short term, the opposite of what discourages young people is what will likely spur them to participate, namely their anger. While many celebrate this outcome as they seek simplistic strategies to motivate their base, it is insufficient for long term engagement and places our capacity to envision a common destiny at risk. Although anger about many current political realities is justified, we all suffer if participation in our electoral process is fueled only by cynicism and anger.

Sustained engagement of our next generations requires a commitment to move past anger and engage in healthy debate predicated on a common set of values and aspirations for a more just and equitable society. If we want our young people to be part of that debate, we need to be deliberate about creating forums that meet them where they are, hear their concerns and seek their input, while offering them information about how they can use the political process to make lasting progress on the issues they care about.

Kim Yamasaki – Executive Director, Center for Asians United for Self-Empowerment

We have such a contradicting culture when it comes to voting and our young people. We tell our young adults to be more engaged and then when they are, we tell them they don’t know what they’re talking about. As someone who works every day with young voters, I know they don’t vote because they don’t feel like their opinions are valued. That’s how measures get passed and candidates get elected who don’t represent the perspectives of our diverse communities. It’s not that our young adults don’t have opinions. They definitely care – we’ve just told them their opinions don’t matter. Instead, indulge them with some mutual respect by engaging them in an intellectual conversation, share your perspectives, and find common ground where you can at least prefer to disagree. Most of all, remember that it’s their job to vote THEIR experience, NOT YOURS.

Maria Mejia – Los Angeles Director, Gen Next

Partisanship. Young people are keenly interested in being a part of the conversation but are turned off by the vitriolic nature of party politics. Today’s generation of young people share a deep value for mass collaboration but we live in a political system that rewards party loyalty above all else, and compromise is not only discouraged, it becomes nearly impossible. If we want young people to vote, we need to focus on inciting more issues-based dialogue, embracing ideological divergence as an acceptable norm and innovating across diverse disciplines and lines.

Aziza Hasan – Executive Director, New Ground Muslim-Jewish Partnership

According to the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning & Engagement (CIRCLE), the most significant deterrent discouraging young people from voting is that they do “not like the candidates or the issues.” Young people’s’ concerns are not adequately reflected or addressed by politicians, and they are put off by the people and the process. If we truly feel the need to prioritize and empower the youth vote, we need to stop and listen, deeply, when this generation tells us that they do not feel heard or respected. If we really listen, they will tell us what we can do to engage them in ways that will have value for them. And as we’ve seen with the Parkland students, if we really listen, we may discover they have solutions we haven’t even been able to imagine yet.

Mindy Romero – Founder and Director, USC California Civic Engagement Project

The most significant reason young people vote in low numbers in the U.S. is the utter lack of support we give them in the electoral process. When young people turn 18, we expect them to magically know how to vote and to be motivated to do so. We provide them with an abysmal civics education, while at the same time we do not seriously encourage them to be voters. Instead, we often outright discourage them through our skepticism about how committed or capable they are to making informed and thoughtful decisions. The most powerful tool to motivate young people to seize their voice at the ballot box is fellow youth. Research has shown that peer to peer connection can be highly effective in engaging young people. The power lies in young people making the case to their friends and classmates themselves, to exemplify and inform why voting matters for the issues they care about and the well-being of their communities.

Astrid Ochoa – Election Administration and Voting Advocate

There are many factors that contribute to the low turnout of young voters. You can point to candidates that do not resonate with the values of young people, you can discuss a general mistrust of our political system by youth, you can also blame a lack of overall understanding of the voting process. However, if I am being honest, the biggest deterrent that discourages young people from voting is themselves. Young people have convinced themselves that their participation does not matter and that their vote does not count. Therefore, the best way to motivate young people to vote is to show them that their participation can make a difference. While voting is important, I believe we need to invite youth to participate early in the political process by volunteering at the local level with a campaign they believe in. Witnessing the democratic process first hand is the best way to motivate young people to become active and lifelong voters. Voting is just one step of engagement, in preparation for voting, youth must first understand and care about the issues affecting their community and their generation.

Kim Belshé – Executive Director, First 5 LA

The best way to get young people to vote is to ask, repeatedly. And once more for good measure. While it’s easy to tsk-tsk the young people of today for not turning out, this has been an age-old problem. And let’s not pick on kids. Low voter turnout is a challenge that spans all age groups. The Governor, Legislature, Attorney General and the Secretary of State should be applauded for doing all they can to protect the integrity of the voting process while eliminating barriers to registration. It’s up to all of us to ask all people to vote, to explain its importance that every vote does indeed count and matter. We have to set an example of voting participation for people of all ages, and yes, for our youngest children, by practicing what we preach and making a plan to vote by Election Day.

Rosalind Hudnell – Former VP of Human Resources, Intel Corp and Former Chair/President of Intel Foundation

We’ve seen numerous surveys and feedback from young people demonstrating their frustration with politics and elected officials who aren’t focused on the issues they care about. As told to me, it’s very simple. “Give us someone worth our energy to vote for and then use technology to make it simpler.”

This is a generation that manages their lives through a mobile device. The idea that they would consistently stand in line to manually vote for a candidate they don’t really believe in is just not realistic. We have antiquated systems. The policies, positions and the focus of campaigns just aren’t speaking to them. One young man told me, he voted in 2016 because he knew his parents would disown him if he didn’t. “Neither candidate told me how they would impact my life directly. At least Obama made us feel like we had a chance. He really was a sign of hope and progress that helped us feel maybe we would be looked at differently. It was worth our time and effort to go vote for him. If nothing else he was cool and we liked him.”

Ron Wong – President, Imprenta Communications Group

We need to make voting relevant for young people, and make it easier to vote. When people are buying everything from shoes, cars, food and even searching for their significant other on-line, it seems like the time for on-line voting is now. But even beyond making it easier to cast a vote, we need to ensure that there are outcomes and tangible effects from voting that are visible to young people. In the generation of Instagram and instant gratification, the thought of politicians toiling away at the margins for years in Sacramento or Washington, DC doesn’t connect with young people. We are not speaking their language, and their low voter turnout speaks volumes. While there are plenty of protests and young people can take to the streets they can’t take themselves to the ballot box. Not only do we need to make voting assessable on-line, we need to be aggressively communicating to young voters through social media and from apps. So while they are watching their favorite band, or searching for the next fashion trend, they are also getting messages saying to them your vote matters.

David Townsend – Founder, TCT Public Affairs

Voters are and always will be stakeholders. Voters are generally older, property owning and educated. Young people simply don’t see anything that would benefit them by voting.

Mike Madrid – Principal, Grassroots Lab

We need to reinstall civic engagement as a cultural norm and educational focus. Young people have never voted in large numbers and there’s no reason to expect that will change unless it becomes an expectation of our civic culture.

Steve Westly – Former California State Controller & Founder of the Westly Group

I think that young people do not believe that either party is speaking to the issues that are most important to them, from public education to the student loan crisis

Catherine Reheis-Boyd – President, Western States Petroleum Association

It may well be that this generation of young people will be different than my generation was when it comes to voting and political engagement. There appears to be a lot of energy, ideas and, perhaps most importantly, passion with this new generation of voters.

I am optimist that this passion combined with easier access voting (via mail, especially) will drive young people to engage in the political process and help shape their — our — future.

Linda Ackerman – President, Marian Bergeson Excellence in Public Service Series

The lack of maturity level and limited life experiences for many of them make it difficult to identify and prioritize issues. Finding reliable information can be difficult. Differentiating between real news and fake news can be an obstacle. There is that rare individual who perhaps was inspired by a high school or college teacher/professor, or perhaps a life changing challenge that led to an interest in the true value and meaning of your right to vote. Most young people who are 17 to 18 are busy with school and all that it entails in addition to worrying about their next, trade school or employment. Age has benefits.

Abby Porth – Executive Director, San Francisco Jewish Community Relations Council

All citizens, but particularly young people, need to hear their concerns addressed by political candidates in order to be motivated to vote. Young people across the State want to hear savvy plans to address the high cost of education, jobs, school violence and gun violence prevention, and equality in society. They thirst for a thoughtful policy on immigration, discrimination and racism. And young people will be more motivated to vote when they hear candidates speak to their concerns about affordable housing and health care. For all the pointed criticism of millennials, they and the generation after theirs want what all Americans want: to be energized to vote for and support candidates who care about bettering the lives of ordinary Americans. When they see a charismatic super star with these attributes, they’ll turn out in droves.

Kathryn Phillips – Director, Sierra Club California

Getting most voters out requires that they feel their vote counts and will make a difference in their lives. Candidates need to be touching on ideas and feelings that move voters. Registering to vote and the actual voting process need to be convenient. Ultimately, then, a combination of challenging times, inspiring candidates, and easy voter registration and voting process should get more voters out to vote, young, middle-aged or old. This year will really test whether this combination is key, particularly in a few critical congressional races where voters have a chance to signal to Washington that they won’t tolerate sexism and racism, environmental degradation, and economic inequities.

Chad Peace – Founder/President, IVC Media and Founding Board Member, National Association of Non-Partisan Reformers

The most significant deterrent that discourages young people from voting, in my opinion, is the sense that their vote is not meaningful. Whether this sense of meaningless derives from a belief that the process is unfair (ask a young Bernie supporter about whether they think the DNC is honest), a belief that politics is more focused on fear-based theatrics than real issues (ask any young voter whether they trust the news), or a belief that the political class on either side of the aisle really cares about them (look at the overwhelming number of young voters registering independent). The best way to motivate more young people to vote is to give them a fair process, an honest conversation, and earn their vote instead of trying to scare them into it.

Christine Robertson – Vice President of Community Engagement and Advocacy, Visit SLO CAL

In 2015, I was part of a team that conceived, built and launched the Digital Democracy open government platform. We were guided by the simple premise that Transparency + Civic Engagement = Accountability.

Low rates of turnout among young people today do not reflect an apathy about the issues or the functions of government, rather, it underscores a skepticism within the electorate that their vote will make a difference. Despite being promised change, voters are accustomed to watching their candidates ultimately conform to establishment politics under pressure from party leadership, caucuses and lobbyists. This predictable cycle fuels voter cynicism and perpetuates low turnout.

Overcoming this skepticism is about more than simply dragging people to the polls on election day. Reviving our democracy involves a fundamental redistribution of power from the political insiders back to the people. At a practical level, voters must see that they are empowered to affect policy outcomes, not just electoral outcomes.

The solution starts with closing the data and information gaps so that the public has access to the same information about the deliberative process as the high paid lobbyists. This information must be delivered in an open and accessible manner so that civic organizations can educate and engage their audiences using the technology tools and platforms to which this generation of digital natives is accustomed. Closing the information gap is at the heart of closing the power gap. And closing the power gap is central to closing the gap in turnout.

Carl Guardino – President and CEO, Silicon Valley Leadership Group

“It’s been decades since 18-year-olds earned the right to vote. Sadly, most still do not vote until they are decades older than 18. From personal experience, it was a combination of not believing my vote would make a difference, not understanding the complexity of issues and individuals on the ballot, and not fully appreciating the awesome responsibility and opportunity we have in a Democracy to have a voice through the ballot box. I will simply state what I have been stating for decades . . . Perhaps this election will be different.”

Jim Wunderman – President and CEO, Bay Area Council

Low turnout among younger voters has been a problem for a long time in California, the U.S. and globally. Younger voters feel disenfranchised by a system that doesn’t really hold them in high regard, that asks them for their vote but doesn’t meaningfully listen or address the issues they care about. And largely ignores their concerns once the election passes. A big reason may be that younger voters as a bloc simply don’t have the money, power and experience to assert themselves and challenge entrenched interests. For example, student debt. Rising tuition related to costs that have little to do with education and other misguided policies have saddled students with an estimated $1.5 trillion in loans nationwide that many will spend years trying to pay off. Housing is another area where the need among younger voters has been effectively ignored. Structurally and functionally, there are probably many things that can be done to make it easier for younger people to register to vote and cast their ballot. But combating the apathy that younger voters feel will require political leaders and institutions to take seriously their concerns and engage with them in finding solutions.

Conan Nolan – Chief Political Reporter and Anchor of ‘News Conference”, KNBC-LA

Last year at the political nerd fest known as “Politicon” in Pasadena, between one booth with petitions for California’s separation from the United States and one raising money for an anti-Trump traveling billboard, a young professional woman in her mid-20’s was busy reading the schedule of the day’s events.

“Are you politically active?” I asked.

“No,” she answered. “But I’ve learned I need to be.”

Thank you, President Trump.

But why did it take a former reality show host and the daily chaos of his administration to convince this obviously bright, college educated woman to participate in history’s greatest “participatory democracy”?

Every election year there is some kind of “Rock the Vote” effort at reaching young people. Celebrities try to make the process hip. Big registration drives are announced. And each year the youth vote disappoints.

Part of it is logistics. Research shows that Americans between the ages of 18 and 30 move an average of six times. That’s a lot of re-registration.

But the fact is young people don’t vote because understanding their government, and what is at stake, is not a priority either in schools or in homes. According to the Center for American Progress only nine states and the District of Columbia require a full year of civics education. 30 states (including California) require a half year and 11 have no requirements at all. Not surprisingly, according to a 2016 study by the Annenberg Public Policy Center, just 26 percent of Americans can name all three branches of government.

For young people to engage in the process of self-government we need to recommit ourselves to the fundamental purpose of public education. While there are legions of teachers dedicated to making citizens out of their students the fact is they need help. We also need more of them. Best practices need to be followed. Requirements need to be strengthened.

And it’s not about taking class time for students to engage in a protest demonstration. Teachers shouldn’t teach their students what to think, but how to think. Former Harvard professor John Muresianu argues that activism follows knowledge and critical thought. Young people need to know why our system is, as Madison put it, a “competition of ideas”. Absent such instruction and we will continue to see the rise of the current “I’m right and you are immoral” polarization.

Knowledge is power. What young people need to know is just how special this democracy is and what it takes to keep it that way.

None of this will be easy. That young people continue to be more targets for consumerism than citizenship can be seen in the recent hiring of Colin Kaepernick as a pitchman for Nike. His activism has garnered admiration from the shoe company’s core audience. But the former 49er doesn’t just kneel during the anthem.

He also purposely doesn’t vote.