California's Young Voter Problem Requires a Social Solution

Young woman holding a large vote pin.
Young woman holding a large vote pin.

Monday was the last day for Californians to register to vote in November's general election and for the next two weeks, we'll be inundated with political and advocacy groups' most heated rhetoric of the campaign season. But if June's primary turnout was any indication of what's in store for the first Tuesday of the month, we may find that this grand finale of get-out-the-vote efforts is ineffectual -- not only in our state, but across the country.

Consider that about 18 percent of California's total eligible voting population turned out in June -- the lowest turnout of any statewide election in California history. More worrisome: Just 3.7 percent of the state's 3.5 million 18-24 year-olds (the coveted "youth vote") went to the polls and turnout among 25-34 year-olds wasn't much higher. To put this into perspective, only about three times as many young people in the most populous state in America showed up to vote than were estimated to have attended last weekend's Treasure Island Music Festival in San Francisco.

Admittedly, casting a ballot for State Insurance Commissioner is not nearly as exciting as seeing Outkast belt out "B.O.B." or dancing along to Massive Attack's trip-hop "Teardrop" (no offense to candidates Dave Jones or Ted Gaines). But it's a serious problem that younger Californians are deciding not to exercise their right to shape the future of this state. In fact, if the turnout rate among 18-24 year-olds from the 2010 midterm (18.5 percent) stays constant through 2038, young people could make up a mere 5.3 percent of all voters statewide, according to the nonpartisan California Civic Engagement Project at UC Davis.

To help turn the tide, a recent report from CCEP recommends targeted outreach efforts, with special attention paid to youth of color and low income populations. The group also notes that high schools can be key partners in helping youth become active participants in our electoral system. As a former public school teacher who taught in an underserved community, I agree with both points, but getting people -- especially young people -- energized about democracy is going to take a lot more than that. And we need to start at home and in our own communities.

Some of my fondest civic memories are of pre-election dinners with family and friends where we'd collectively dissect that year's voter information guide and talk through each ballot measure and candidate. Earlier this week, my team at Brigade, the tech startup where I serve as CEO, gathered for such a potluck and a review of state and local election primers. There were moments of solidarity, intense disagreement, and compelling arguments by the most passionate among us, and at the end of the night, we all walked away sated and better informed.

For too long, meaningfully discussing issues that are important to the future of our neighborhoods, cities, states and country has been frowned upon. For many, "talking politics" around the dinner table or online with people you know, is taboo -- but it shouldn't be. The deeply social experiences that are part of our personal and professional lives, thanks in part to the popularity of social networks and productivity apps, are missing from our civic lives.

If we all came together in civic spaces to interact with those who may be different from ourselves but have a common stake in our society, things could start to change for the better -- and not just in California. If there's a real and demonstrable social benefit to participating, and a social cost to not participating, I predict we'll see increased civic awareness, voter participation, and maybe even renewed faith in elected officials nationwide.

The dinner table may not seem like the right place to begin solving the complex and systemic problems with our democracy, but it's not a bad place to start.