California joins states urging student-led voter drives

California joins states urging student-led voter drives

(Calif.) Seventeen-year-old Jonah Pelter says registering to vote is not something he thinks about a lot, and he’s never been exposed to any kind of on-campus voter registration event in his three years of high school.

But that could change, not only for Pelter, but for hundreds of thousands of other teenage pupils if California schools take advantage of a new law promoting student-led, on-campus voter-registration events.

“It’s definitely important to vote,” said Pelter, who turns 18 in September and is heading into his senior year at Napa Valley’s Calistoga High School. “Everyone needs to have a voice.”

But it is the lack of voices from the 18- to 24-year-old population that has spurred a number of states to take aim at that demographic by changing registration rules to encourage more civic participation among the country’s youth. According to U.S. Census Bureau data, just over half (53.6 percent) of citizens in that age group were registered to vote for the 2012 general election. And out of that pool, just 41.2 percent actually voted.

Growing these numbers, say experts, is possible by engaging middle and high school students through civics and voter education programs.

Several states, including Connecticut, Iowa, Florida, Maine, Wisconsin, Missouri and Texas – now allow 17-year-olds to pre-register. In Hawaii, 16-year-olds may pre-register so that their voter status is automatically activated when they turn 18. Wisconsin, according to a report from New America Foundation, reaches out to young voters through a state law establishing at every high school a “registration deputy,” filled by a volunteering teacher or staff member.

The new California law, signed earlier this month by Gov. Jerry Brown, updates an existing law by expanding the list of individuals allowed to register students on high school campuses – from only deputy registrars of voters to people authorized by the county elections official.

The statute also reiterates that the last two full weeks in the months of April and September – now known as “high school voter weeks” – be designated as “high school voter education weeks,” and it authorizes each school administrator to name one or more students as voter outreach coordinators to encourage student registration during that time.

“We know that when young people experience the importance of voting and a culture of civic engagement in high school, they are much more likely to be active voters once they are eligible,” Secretary of State Debra Bowen said in a statement last week. “We also know peer-to-peer education is one of the most effective ways to develop students' interest in democracy, and we've seen wonderful examples of it throughout the state.”

Getting the word out to the state’s nearly 2,000 schools with grades 9 to 12, however, may be the more difficult task. And, even then, planning and coordinating a school-wide voter registration event takes a willing administrator and an active student council to see it through.

Bowen’s office says it contacts every California high school each year encouraging them to offer voter registration to eligible students with either paper registration applications or a link on the high school website to the state’s online voter registration application at Last year, according to a spokesperson for Bowen’s office, more than 150 schools confirmed they offered the online registration link, and many others requested more than 24,000 paper voter registration applications for their students who were nearing the voting age of 18.

Additionally, hundreds of high schools participate in a mock election program, overseen by the Secretary of State’s office. Prior to every statewide general election, participating schools receive curriculum and supplies so that students can learn about real candidates and issues that will be on the California ballot, then vote on mock election ballots the week before the real election.

The League of Women Voters has created a high school voter registration training manual, available on its website, that offers field-tested tips and a range of planning and training tools such as sample letters and coalition building strategies.

Project Vote, a national nonpartisan, nonprofit group working to “empower, educate, and mobilize low-income, minority, youth, and other marginalized and under-represented voters,” has numerous youth voting resources on its website, including an easy-to-read white paper on Best Practices for Implementing Effective High School Voter Registration Programs. more