Low Teen Voter Registration in OC Leads to Records Request

An+astonishingly+low+voter+registration+rate+among+the+youth+in+Orange+County+has+lead+to+the+community+questioning+the+efficacy+of+government+curriculums+in+school.+

Nikki Iyer

An astonishingly low voter registration rate among the youth in Orange County has lead to the community questioning the efficacy of government curriculums in school.

By Nikki Iyer , San Juan Hills High School

The Civics Center, a nonpartisan organization working to increase youth voter participation, filed a public records request last month to determine whether CUSD and other Orange County school districts are complying with election laws in California.

Citing data that only 13% of 16 and 17 year olds in Orange County are pre-registered to vote, the organization seeks to understand why the registration rate is so low, and how it can be improved, according to documents obtained by The Express.

“We believe this information will be very helpful in determining the disconnect between the laws and the youth preregistration and registration rates. In addition, we want to encourage further efforts by school districts and high schools to ensure that high school students have the opportunity to pre-register or register before they graduate,” said Andrea Hartman, Sr. Law and Policy Advisor at The Civics Center.

Teenagers in California can pre-register to vote at 16. Obtaining a driver’s license or ID card at the DMV automatically registers people to vote unless they opt out.

The Civics Center also wants to see if history classes are teaching students about the voting process, based on the California Department of Education’s recently updated history/social science framework.

“As a practical matter, students should know how to register to vote-both online and by mail-what the requirements are for registration; how to request, fill out, and return an absentee ballot; what to expect on election day; how to find a polling place; and where and how to access and understand the voter information pamphlet and other materials to become an informed voter,” according to the document.

Overall, the framework says students should have a good understanding of the mechanics of voting, including registration, ballots, and election day, through items such as voter distribution cards, student involvement, etc.

We believe this information will be very helpful in determining the disconnect between the laws and the youth preregistration and registration rates. In addition, we want to encourage further efforts by school districts and high schools to ensure that high school students have the opportunity to pre-register or register before they graduate”

— Hartman

However, because of COVID-19, it was a struggle to provide proof to the Civics Center, as many lessons came in the form of informational links sent to students while on zoom, or other untrackable lectures. For instance, the AP Government textbook includes information about the history of voting and the voting behavior of different demographic groups, so many specific lessons regarding filling out ballots and registration may not be traceable.

“Yes, our high schools are compliant with state law,” said Cara Bran Legal Specialist, Human Resource Services Capistrano Unified School District.

In May 2021, The Civics Center compiled data on voting registration of 18 year olds across Orange County in a study called the Future Voter Scorecard. Their results show that in CUSD 35.1% of this age are registered to vote, much lower than the average of older adults.

“Orange County school districts need to work much harder if they want to comply with state law requiring them to educate students about voter registration and voting and to encourage young people to be full participants in our democracy. In every district, the registration rate for these new 18-year-olds is under 45%. In contrast, 82% of the citizen voting age population and 73% of the total voting age population in Orange County are registered to vote,” said Laura Brill, founder and director of The Civics Center.

After receiving information from the records request, if The Civics Center finds that Orange County is not sufficiently complying with the law, the organization will look into implementing new methods to improve the registration rate.

“Should we feel the district could do more to improve voter registration, we will invite administrators, educators, and/or students to conduct peer-to-peer voter registration efforts in high schools within the district. The Civics Center offers free training and supplies (we call our kits Democracy in a Box) for student organizers to host a successful drive on their campus. We will also ask that district officials adopt pro-voter registration policies to make sure such efforts can become institutionalized and grow over time,” said James Wenz, associate director of TCC.

Campus clubs have put on voter registration drives in the past through clubs like the Young Democrats and Young Republicans. During Unity Week there was a voter registration booth, and The Express has published many stories on voting.

ASB Adviser Brooke Valderrama is designated by law to facilitate the distribution of voter registration cards or share an online link frequently. Currently, Valderrama is working to obtain those cards from the Secretary of State, and placing an online link on the SJHHS homepage.

Orange County school districts need to work much harder if they want to comply with state law requiring them to educate students about voter registration and voting and to encourage young people to be full participants in our democracy”

— Laura Brill

Right now, as in the past, students are not receiving paper voter registration cards, and many students say the online link has not been frequently advertised to them.

Students disagree about whether the school has done a good job of preparing students to vote.

“When I was in my senior year of high school last year, I don’t remember having any class that taught me how to vote. There was never a part of class that walked us through the process of voting. They did however let us students know that if we were a certain age we could vote and encouraged us to do so,” said alumni Arianna Azcaraga.

However, other students attribute their knowledge of voting to school activities.

“I remember learning a lot about the voting process through AP Government and remember several voting drives held as a joint initiative by the political clubs on campus. I think this really helped with pre-registration for students to vote,” said Trisha Mantri, class of 2021 alumni.

National Voter Registration Day is September 28th, and National High School Voter Registration Week is September 27th through October 1st. In addition, The Civics Center is hosting free workshops for students interested in increasing voter registration. 

Ultimately, CUSD is on a deadline to provide proof of compliance with the election laws by the end of this month. From there, the community will see what changes or programs will be implemented.

This story was originally published on The Express on September 28, 2021.