Do California’s Students Care About Democracy?
With the California senate and gubernatorial races heating up, the state’s finances in the gutter and an education system that’s crumbling, people will have a chance to vote for change on Nov. 3.
But that raises a question being asked across the country: What about the youth vote? Does the generation that rallied so strongly behind President Obama still care about politics and democracy? And will they come out to vote?
California Common Cause and Democracy Matters hope to reengage California’s students this weekend when the nonpartisan partners are scheduled to host a two-day political summit in Los Angeles July 23-25.
The event, called California Student Democracy Training, is described as “two days of training and workshops on the issues that challenge California’s democratic process and how students can organize to fix them.”
The workshops will center on four main policy issues: voting rights, campaign finance reform, media ethics and redistricting, said California Common Cause LA Organizer Anjuli Kronhei.
The overall goal is to improve student participation in democracy through a better understanding of voting rights and issues like gerrymandering and media reform, she said.
The summit is not a stomping ground for candidates and none of the contenders in the 2010 midterm elections were invited to attend, Khronei said.
The presence of Jerry Brown, Meg Whitman, Carly Fiorina or Barbara Boxer would distract from the focus on issues-based training, she said. Instead, the sessions focus on lobbying officials and working with the media.
“We didn't want this to be a platform for candidates,” Khronei said.
The California event is a spin-off of a national summit held in Albany for the past nine years. Kronhei said the 2010 Albany summit drew 110 people. She expects 20 or so students for California’s first summit in Los Angeles.
The 2008 election saw record youth participation with 52 percent of young Americans voting. This figure represented the “third-highest showing of young voters — about 22 million, topped only by the turnout in 1992 and in 1972.”
But experts say there hasn’t been any evidence in state elections since then to suggest that similar behavior is here to stay.
Youth voter turnout in January’s special election to replace Ted Kennedy in Massachusetts was estimated at 15 percent, with the turnout for people over 30 at about 57 percent. Virginia and New Jersey gubernatorial elections in 2009 saw similarly low numbers with 17 and 19 percent youth voter turnout.
Now, new Pew research shows that with Election Day four months away, “[O]nly half of young voters say they are absolutely certain to vote.”
The research also shows that interest appears to be much heavier on the GOP side: “Republicans are much more engaged in the coming election and more inclined to say they are certain to vote than are Democrats.”
Gordon Stables, an expert in political communication and a clinical assistant professor of communication at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, confirms this trend: “Recent polls have indicated that there is a large ‘enthusiasm gap’ between potential Republican and Democratic voters. There are lots of variables, but this could be a bad sign for youth turnout if there is any holdover of 2008 voting patterns--when younger voters substantially preferred President Obama. I would expect that issues like immigration might motivate a number of younger voters, but there is a lot of doubt about what candidates or campaigns will drive younger voters to mobilize and then turnout to vote.”
Data from 2006 shows that youth voter turnout increased three percentage points (from 22 percent in 2002 to 25 percent in 2006) in the last midterm elections, but those numbers remain lower than youth participation in general election seasons.
The Democratic Party’s success in this midterm season may hinge on “whether legions of first-time or occasional voters who supported Mr. Obama, including a high percentage of African-Americans, return to the polls this year.”
Lower levels of voter participation in midterm election seasons were not a deterring factor in the planning of the first annual event in a midterm year, Khronei said.
“We planned it because we are thinking longterm about the direction of our state and we need to train students to take on these issues of democracy,” she said.
The problems in California could actually encourage more students to attend, she said.
Othman Ramadan, a graduate student at California State University, Long Beach, plans to attend the summit: “I believe this training program will teach me how to shake young people out of their doldrums and empower them to look beyond the minutia of their everyday and realize that democracy demands that they participate.”
Participation, he said, is key.
“I believe the old adage of ‘people get the government they deserve’ is true. So Californians are in debt, Meg Whitman is trying to buy the governor's seat, our education system is by all accounts in shambles and people are all too happy to stand aside and fiddle while our Rome burns,” he said. “If students cared enough to pay attention and cared enough to have a conversation, they could make a world of difference.”
Though Stables said general election years do yield greater voter turnout, garnering enthusiasm among young voters and building “organizational strength” bodes well for the future.
“If you can attract young people in this relatively low-salient environment, they can be part of a larger campaign for the fall elections and future campaigns,” he said.
But what remains to be seen is whether any of California’s midterm candidates will attempt to engage youth voters as the Obama campaign did in 2008.
“Most of the available evidence points to the particulars of the Obama campaign--their emphasis on social networking, their campaign themes, etc.--as helping to boost the 2008 numbers,” Stables said, noting Whitman and Brown's Facebook fan page numbers, which hover between 33,000 and 35,000 people, respectively. “Numbers don't explain their impact, but those numbers need to translate into local organization and turnout.”
Does the Obama generation have the potential to be the next civil rights-fighting, Woodstock-attending, Vietnam-hating generation everyone will always remember from the 1960s and 70s?
Only time will tell.
To reach editor-in-chief Callie Schweitzer, click here.