Commentary

01/22/2015  by Alexandra Bjerg

New study finds dismal 2014 youth voter turnout may continue unabated


(Photo Credit: Sterling College)

By now you’ve read last year’s general election in California had the lowest turnout in a non-presidential general election in 100 years. More than 16.7 million eligible Californians elected not to vote. That’s larger than the total population of 46 of the 50 states. New research reveals demographics disparities among California’s voter population, finding young people remain underrepresented as a proportion of the state’s overall electorate and participate at a much lower rate than older residents.

A report released by the California Civic Engagement Project (CCEP) at UC Davis finds a mere 8.2 percent of eligible California youth, those aged 18-24, bothered to cast a ballot in the 2014 November election. That means more than 90 percent of young voters sat out the election (!).

Turnout in the 2014 general election was the lowest in California history, but the report shows voter participation rates vary considerably by age group. Youth comprised a paltry 3.9 percent of all ballots cast in California but accounted for 14.5 percent of the eligible voting population, according to the report authored by Mindy Romero, CCEP Executive Director. By contrast, voters aged 65-74 were overrepresented. This group constituted just 10.4 percent of eligible voters but cast 19.4 percent of all ballots.

The study also found that the youth share of California votes is projected to steadily decline over the next 20 years. “Assuming youth maintain their 2012 eligible turnout rate (30.2%) constant through the 2040 general election, we project a steady decrease in the youth share of California’s vote, from 8.1% in 2012 to 6.9% in 2040,” the report states. 

By comparison, the author projects 65-74 year olds to increase their share of the vote from 12.9 percent in 2012 to 16.8 percent in 2040. As a result, young California voters are expected to remain underrepresented at the polls through 2040 (!!).

In the report, Romero identifies several actions to prevent low youth turnout from becoming the new normal. Although the launch of online voter registration has made it easier than ever to register to vote, the report argues restrictive registration and voting requirements make it difficult for youth to enter and navigate the electoral system. The report claims increasing access and removing bureaucratic barriers to the ballot box will increase participation.

Better use of relatively unknown laws already on the books can boost youth participation rates, the report says. For example, California is one several states that allows 17-year olds turning 18 before the next election to register to vote, but the provision is often underutilized. Studies show that voting is habit forming; engaging youth in the electoral process early can lead to lifelong voting.  

Improving voter participation rates among youth extends beyond improving voter registration rates. Follow up outreach after young adults register is essential to ensuring they actually vote, the report says, and that contact by peers can be incredibly effective tool for mobilizing youth, particularly among groups that experience the greatest barriers, such as minorities and low-income communities. 

If youth don’t register, they can’t vote. And if young Californians don’t vote, they have little say in selecting the leaders that make policy decisions that impact their daily lives. The health and legitimacy of our representative democracy depends on expanding the electorate to ensure all of California’s diverse voices are heard. When less than 10 percent of eligible young Californians make their voice heard through the ballot box, the future of our state is refusing to have a say in our state’s future.

Categories: Democracy, Civic Engagement, Elections

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