Registering to vote at age 18 is an American rite of passage. But the minute Sonoma Valley High School senior Amy Stanfield turned 18 on March 25, it already had been crossed off her to-do list.
Stanfield is one of more than 1,000 teens in Sonoma County — and more than 100,000 across the state — who have taken advantage of a California program launched in September 2016 that allows teenagers as young as 16 to preregister as voters. In the state’s largest county, Los Angeles, more than 26,000 teenagers have preregistered.
“I’m all about being a voice at my school and in my community,” Stanfield said. “It’s really important for our democracy.”
The idea behind the state’s voter registration program is to remove potential barriers that can prevent people from voting. It automatically enters people into the state’s voter system the day they turn 18.
However, Sonoma State University political scientist Dave McCuan questioned whether the program will make a difference at the ballot box.
California Secretary of State Alex Padilla believes the state’s program will help boost voter participation, thanks in part to America’s divided political environment and the rise of student leaders, such as the survivors of the Parkland, Florida, high school shooting.
“Two years ago when I was visiting high schools, it took a little bit of work to make the case that, yes, it’s important to vote,” he said. “But now, kids are paying attention.”
Whether they’re concerned about gun safety, immigration issues, climate change or college affordability, students realize they need to get involved civically to make an impact on issues they care about, Padilla said.
“Their efforts have to include civic engagement, which begins with registering to vote,” he said.
Of the Sonoma County teens who preregistered to vote, 44 percent did so as Democrats, while 41 percent registered as no party preference and 9 percent as Republicans. Statewide, no party preference leads the charge with 43 percent of preregistrations, followed by 38 percent for the Democratic Party and 10 percent for the Republican Party.
That overall trend toward no party preference is only going to become more obvious in coming years, as the electorate becomes more disenchanted by the two ruling political parties, McCuan said.
“The no party preference trend that we see with these preregistrations is exactly what we’re seeing writ large with the electorate in California,” he said. “So each voter in the system is coming in Democratic or NPP, so there’s a compounding effect on the minority party. It makes the Republican Party an ever more endangered species in California as a result.”
Brian Lochtan, a government and economics teacher at Casa Grande High School, introduces his seniors to the voter registration process as part of his curriculum. He also keeps voter registration and preregistration forms on hand in his classroom.
A teacher for 19 years, he said he sees his post-millennial generation students as more likely to engage in the civic process than their predecessors. He’s hopeful that involving them in the voting process early could have an impact at the ballot box.
Only 51 percent of millennials, who were born between 1981 and 1996 and are expected to outnumber baby boomers next year, cast ballots in 2016.