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Shashauna Andersen thinks today is the start of something big.

In her first Election Day as a registered voter, Andersen, an 18-year-old El Molino High School senior, will find her polling place and mark her ballot.

"I'm excited and nervous for some reason," she said. "It's not just a vote, it's a big vote and it means a lot to a lot of people."

More than 1.4 million new voters have registered in California -- almost half registered through the online registration that opened up under a new law six weeks ago.

Some of those voters who registered for the first time are older, but others are newly minted 18-year-olds who registered to vote the first chance they got.

Willow Gallagher, a senior at Sonoma Academy, doesn't buy into the pessimism that a single vote will not make a difference.

"My vote matters because if other people thought the same, if they were part of the big fishbowl, then no one would do anything. They wouldn't have their own choice or thought on what was important," she said.

Young voters have historically been slow to register and take part in the electoral process.

Nearly half of eligible 18- to 24-year-olds in the state were registered to vote in 2010, compared with 82.1 percent for the rest of the population, according to a new study by the UC Davis California Civic Engagement Project. The final registration numbers for California were released by the Secretary of State's office Friday and haven't been analyzed yet, according to Mindy Romero, project director of the UC Davis project.

Among Sonoma County's 18- to 24-year-olds, only 51 percent were registered to vote in 2010.

Teaching students on the cusp of adulthood what voting means and how to do it is a cornerstone of a lifetime of civic engagement, Romero said.

"We know there is lots of work that has been done that connects the importance of school curriculum and civic education or full or active engagement for youth and for electoral participation. We know there is that connection," she said.

For Andersen, she picked up registration papers and ballot information at El Molino's career center before eventually registering to vote during a visit to San Francisco.

Analy High senior Tessa Brinkman was directed by her government teacher Bob Cullinen to registration forms in the campus library.

"I was really happy I'm in government this semester because we went over all of the propositions and everything," she said. "Everyone always talks about the lowest percentage of the people who vote are kids from 18 to 24, so I wanted to have a voice and to be able to contribute to our leaders and their forms of government."

Sonoma Academy senior Tori Gimpel said that turning 18 in June and registering to vote means her opinions now carry more weight.

"I am really excited to be able to be at an age where now my voice is something that can be taken seriously to a certain extent," she said. "I can basically have a voice in the society I am a part of."

That doesn't just mean the presidential race between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, Gimpel said.

"I think there are a lot of important ballot measures that are up in California," she said. "I live in Sebastopol, and I think it's important to think about who we are electing just for City Council, too. I think who I choose will have somewhat of an influence about how our small town develops and grows and whether it becomes commercialized or not."