Commentary: Where is the youth vote?

The Sacramento BeeSeptember 20, 2012 


Dan Morain is a columnist for the Sacramento Bee.

SCOTT LORENZO — MCT/Sacramento Bee

The headline was true enough, though it was politically incorrect by today's standards: "Pretty Teen Coed Is First Vote Caster."

This newspaper detailed how Joanne Durbin, that "pretty blonde college student," and a half-dozen other newly minted young voters might change the face of democracy.

At 19, Durbin stepped into the voting booth and cast her ballot in a local El Dorado County election, apparently becoming the first Californian to exercise her right under the 26th Amendment, which took effect July 1, 1971, and lowered the voting age to 18 from 21. Before hurrying off to class at Sacramento State, Durbin surveyed the polling place and noted that no one lined up behind her.

"I guess they are just lazy, like the adults," Durbin, smart kid that she was, told the reporter.

Forty-one years later, Joanne Durbin Testerman is a nurse and a grandmother living in Arizona, where she helps care for her aging parents. She has missed only one election since, though she had a good excuse; she was giving birth to twins. But the youth vote has never materialized.

A product of the Vietnam War era, the 26th Amendment was in place for the 1972 presidential election. We know how that turned out. George McGovern, the peace candidate who sought to mobilize young people outraged by the Vietnam War and draft, won Massachusetts and the District of Columbia, and nothing else.

People described in the newspaper article are now in their 60s. I found a few of them with help from The Bee's researcher, Pete Basofin. They all had become regular voters and drilled into their kids' heads the need to vote.

"Politics governs the air you breathe," said Melanie Connors, 61, who spent a career as a child protective services worker. "You need to stay informed and involved."

"I have my two cents. I might as well put it in there. I fought for it," added Tony Kessler. A Navy veteran living in San Luis Obispo, he has voted every time since, except for a few years when he was living in Japan. "I thought things were going to start changing. But nothing happened."

Indeed, four decades later, the vast majority of young people still don't vote. The Public Policy Institute of California estimates that 19 percent of people 25 or younger are likely voters in this state, compared with 74 percent of voters who are 65 and older.

They can't vote if they aren't registered, and they aren't. UC Davis researcher Mindy Romero, project director of the California Civic Engagement Project, has found that a paltry 49.43 percent of eligible voters between 18 and 24 are registered, compared to 77.5 percent in the general population.

On the margins, young voters can make a difference for certain candidates and the rare issue. Gov. Jerry Brown hopes for an uptick among students to help win passage of Proposition 30, which would raise $6 billion a year in taxes primarily on wealthy people and lessen the immediate need for more tuition hikes.

President Barack Obama seeks to recapture some of the enthusiasm from 2008 by aggressively courting the youth vote, promising to keep interest rates low on college loans and campaigning on campuses in swing states.

Gov. Mitt Romney made a play for younger voters by picking Rep. Paul Ryan, 42, as his running mate. But television images of the Republican National Convention depicted a party that is predominantly white, a problem in a multicultural era. An 82-year-old man grousing at an empty chair didn't help, either.

Stephen Richer, 27, has been blogging about the youth vote for Forbes and intends to vote for Romney. But he noted that the GOP loses young people by opposing same-sex marriage and some other social issues. Unlike Republican leaders, younger voters generally like the Affordable Care Act, at least the part that allows them to remain on their parents' health plan until age 26.

"The general impression is that the Republican Party is the party of old, white men," Richer said, noting that the current generation is anything but.

There are ways to juice the turnout among younger voters. California could bring voting to where people are. Consultant Ace Smith, who is managing Brown's Proposition 30, noted that Texas has mobile voting booths that stop at malls and other places where people gather.

"It's an anachronism," Smith said of the voting system. "We still have paper ballots. We haven't changed with the world. We transfer billions of dollars every day online, and we can't register and vote online."

Brown is mulling over whether to sign legislation, Assembly Bill 1436, that would increase turnout by permitting people to register up to Election Day, a long overdue idea.

As Testerman and the others found, a parent's influence is vital.

"Voting is not a fundamental right. It is the fundamental right," said Testerman's youngest son, Chris, a 29-year-old substitute teacher who lives in Orangevale.

But for kids who have grown up with computers, the mechanics of voter registration are strange. When my youngest daughter went off to college in 2008, I told her to make sure to register. She asked where to go online to register. Sorry, sweetheart. It doesn't work like that.

I told her to find someone sitting at a card table signing up voters. Really? she asked. Alas, yes. She figured it out, though I might have inspired her by threatening to withhold food money.

Secretary of State Debra Bowen, elected six years ago by portraying herself as tech-savvy, says she will make online registration a reality in the coming days. It's about time.

You'd think registration for young voters would be high in Yolo County, home to UC Davis. But UC Davis' Romero found the county has one of the state's worst registration rates for young people, 40.3 percent.

By contrast, heavily Republican Placer County has the highest youth registration of any county in the state, 77.75 percent. It's no secret why. Placer County Registrar Jim McCauley sends teams to high schools to register kids. The GOP is losing ground in most of the state. But Republicans have gained numbers in Placer County.

Those of us who are of a certain age find it easy to remain registered. So long as you don't relocate, your registration remains valid. Young people don't stay put.

I checked voter registration for the three young voters I know best, my kids. Not surprisingly, they were all registered at old addresses. I nagged them. They're busy. I hope they'll be shamed into updating their registration when they read what their old man has written, which they'll do online, of course.

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