California Forum

California schools are supposed to promote voter registration. Why isn’t that happening?

High school and college students protest the election of Donald Trump at UC Berkeley, Nov. 9, 2016. Despite improved turnout in the presidential election, only 53 percent of California millennials are registered to vote. (Jim Wilson/The New York Times)
High school and college students protest the election of Donald Trump at UC Berkeley, Nov. 9, 2016. Despite improved turnout in the presidential election, only 53 percent of California millennials are registered to vote. (Jim Wilson/The New York Times) NYT

The health of our democracy depends on widespread participation. We all need an understanding of how our public institutions function and how to make our voices heard.

But our country suffers from a serious deficit in basic civic knowledge. Political engagement by young voters is especially low. With the start of the school year just around the corner, it is sobering to realize how much more we need to do to address these problems.

When Secretary of State Alex Padilla asked high schools about their plans to register young voters for the 2016 election, fewer than one in five even bothered to respond.

Only 43 percent of American voters can name a single U.S. Supreme Court Justice. In recent surveys, nearly half of college graduates could not identify correctly the term lengths of U.S. senators and representatives.

Young people have the lowest voter registration and participation rates of any age group in the state. In 2014, just 8.2 percent of eligible youth aged 18-24 voted in the 2014 statewide election – a mere 285,000 of 3.5 million eligible young people. While voter turnout of all age groups improved in the 2016 presidential election, only 53 percent of California millennials (ages 18-34) have registered to vote and only one in four is a likely voter.

We often hear that young people don’t register or don’t vote because they are apathetic. The high school kids I know are not apathetic. They care deeply, not just about Snapchat, but also about climate change, education, college affordability, jobs, health care, and racial, gender and LGBT equality. Oh, and also Snapchat.

As a lawyer and a parent, I began to ask: “What if the problem is not with kids at all? What if our high schools have failed to give students the tools they need to participate effectively in our democracy? What if we as parents and community leaders have failed to hold our schools accountable for ensuring young people are registered to vote and know how our public institutions function and how to participate in the political process?”

Since 2003, state law has required the California Secretary of State to provide voter registration materials to public high schools. California lawmakers amended the law in 2014 to encourage high schools to create more opportunities for high school students to register to vote, including through community emails and website links.

That citizens can pre-register to vote beginning at age 16 is one of the best kept secrets in California. Our 16 and 17 year olds spend most of their waking hours (at least once summer ends) in high school. Emails and website links from high schools encouraging these kids to register to vote would seem to be the bare minimum schools should eagerly do to encourage civic engagement.

Shockingly, in October 2016, when Secretary of State Alex Padilla sent out questionnaires to high schools in California asking about their plans for voter registration leading up to the November election, only 260 out of more than 1,300 – fewer than 20 percent – even bothered to respond. In most grading systems, a score below 20 percent is an F.

Padilla has been encouraging such sensible measures as placing button links on school websites to encourage online voter registration. But based on public records provided by his office, only a tiny handful of schools comply.

If you find these facts outrageous, you are not alone.

If you think we can do better, please do something about it.

Padilla has set a good example by urging high schools to do more and by signing a memorandum of understanding with the University of California and Cal State to get university students registered and voting. He can’t, however, do it alone. We need local efforts to get our local schools engaged.

If you are a parent, please speak up at school board and PTA meetings and contact principals and superintendents. Teachers can be heard through unions, staff meetings and teaching.

Students can learn valuable leadership skills organizing registration drives for current students, and they can encourage voting in their classes and clubs, through social media, morning announcements, fliers, student newspapers and websites.

Lawmakers can require School Accountability Report Cards to reflect voter registration results. School administrators can plan meaningful activities for High School Voter Education Weeks (designated as the last two weeks of September – a few weeks from now – and April). Folks outside of California can learn what their states and schools are doing and press for similar improvements.

And we can all ask ourselves what more we can do to invest in a healthy democracy for future generations.

Before the 2016 election, California Secretary of State Alex Padilla spoke about voter registration during an address at Woodland Community College on Sept. 19, 2016

Laura W. Brill is a co-founding partner at Kendall Brill & Kelly LLP, a Los Angeles based law firm. She writes regularly about democracy and youth issues. She can be reached at @LWBrill.