Advancement Project Closing the Opportunity Gap

Civic engagement among youth, communities of color at an all-time low

By Cynthia Moreno

In Vida en el valle on August 17, 2016

Civic engagement among the youth and communities of color in California continues to be worrisome. Further, disparities in political participation among Latinos and Asian Americans face the greatest inequalities in voting today.

The reason experts are worried is because this is an election year and the days are numbered before the country votes for the next President of the United States.

Last Thursday, the California Equity Leaders Network hosted a legislative luncheon titled ‘Deepening Civic Participation Among California’s Low-Income Communities and Communities of Color’ where experts revealed staggering numbers and the barriers keeping these communities from voting.

Mindy Romero, founder and director of the California Civic Engagement Project at UC Davis Center for Regional Change discussed youth engagement, the barriers they face and why their numbers continue to plummet in most local, state and national elections.

In November of the 2014 general election, only 8.2 percent of eligible voters between the ages of 18-24 cast their vote. The total number of eligible youth in California was 3.5 million.

“When we look at the numbers, we definitely see a smaller percentage of youth civic engagement across the board. There are many factors contributing to that, but the big worry is that those numbers will either continue or worsen,” said Romero.

That same year, Latino turnout was 17.3 percent and Asian-American was 18.4, respectively.

“The numbers are certainly abysmal,” said Romero.

What is keeping the youth from casting votes has a lot to do with disparities that lead to underrepresentation. The youth, as a voting bloc, are underrepresented among voters. They only make up 14.5 percent of the eligible voter population in the state, and 3.9 percent of all general voters.

The youth vote is important in elections because of their role in the democratic process. In California, more civic engagement among youth translates to more policy consequences and accountability and is critical to boosting California’s future turnout.

There are two obstacles to increasing civic engagement among youth and they include making it easier for them to vote and making them want to vote.

“For underrepresented groups, like the youth, Latinos, and Asian-Americans—what drives them to the polls are galvanizing issues, sometimes the candidates, otherwise there is an apparent lack of political participation,” said Romero.

In general, communities of color get lower outreach efforts by candidates because of their dismal turnout rates, said Romero.

“Candidates have a budget for outreach and when they look at the numbers, they tend to target communities where there is a higher likelihood of voting and where there is strong civic engagement among its members. If they are not likely voters, it stands to reason, they won’t spend outreach efforts on those groups,” said Romero.

In order for youth to become stronger participants of civic engagement, Romero recommends a combination of strong civics engagement curriculum at high schools, broader outreach by all sectors and accessible government structures that meet the needs of the community.

John Dobard, Manager of Political Voice, Advancement Project, who has been leading efforts to eliminate racial and economic disparities in political participation and government responsiveness through policy advocacy, actionable research and facilitating data-based collaborative action among community organizers, government officials and researchers, found that Latinos and Asian-Americans face the greatest inequalities in voting.

In his report titled, ‘Unequal Voices: California’s Racial Disparities in Political Participation’, he found that racial disparities are worse in midterm elections and continue in local elections. There are also significant gaps in all forms of participation. Education, income, and homeownership play significant roles in engagement and racial gaps persist when accounting for class.

“Based on our report, the white population participates in higher numbers, at all levels of political engagement and civic participation,” said Dobard.

What drives disparities are two main factors; social economic inequality and the widening black/white gap. For Latinos, it’s not just the Latino / white gap or socio-economic status.

“A huge barrier for this group is often language. In general, language plays an important role across many different ethnic groups whose first language is not English,” said Dobard.

Joshua Cardenas, a sophomore student at Wesleyan University and former member of the San Francisco Youth Commission suggested a proposal to engage youth at a younger age by getting them registered to vote by the time they turn 16.

“It’s been proven time and time again that the younger youth are civically engaged, the more likely they are to become voters and hopefully, life-long voters,” said Cardenas.

The reason for beginning voting registration at 16 is because young, potential voters are more connected to their communities and more connected to the issues in their community. They still live at home and know what issues affect them, their peers or their family.

The age of 18 is generally a time of disconnect for many youth because they are in a moment of transition: graduating from college and moving elsewhere outside of their community. It is one of the most difficult moments to engage a potential voter, said Cardenas.

“My research also indicates that voting is habitual. Once someone casts their first vote, they will continue voting and the earlier someone starts voting, the more likely they are to be a lifelong voter,” said Cardenas.

Given the boom of technology and social media, youth and communities of color are expected to be more civically engaged in the forthcoming years.

“Living in the age of the internet, people are more informed than ever before and they have access to unlimited information, compared to the past. So it stands to reason that we should be engaging more voters by different methods and means, in the near future,” said Cardenas.


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