Orhan Yneri, a 17-year-old junior at Hollywood High School, first started registering his classmates to vote before the 2008 presidential election. As a member of the Social Justice small leaning group, Yneri sat at a booth on the quad for a week, offering voter registration forms to other students.
“It was fun, because we gave people the opportunity to have a say in which people got elected,” Yneri said. “At first everybody was a little bit scared to register, a little skeptical. But after we talked to them, and told them why they should register, they’d say, OK, and that’s how we got people to vote.”
The deadline to register to vote in the California primaries this June passed last week, and as high school seniors prepare to graduate, many of them remain unregistered.
According to Claire Conlon, executive director of the California Young Democrats, the Secretary of State’s office requires all California public schools to inform students that they can register to vote. In practice, however, whether students are registered to vote, and by whom, varies greatly by school, and even by class.
“The school has to provide the materials and tell them about registering when they turn eighteen,” Conlon said. “We’ve found that some schools are a lot better about doing that than others.”
The Los Angeles County Registrar visits high schools to recruit poll workers, but, according to spokesperson Marcia Ventura, the registrar’s office does not necessarily run voter registration drives in conjunction with its poll-worker program.
“The program is specifically for high school poll worker recruitment,” Ventura said.
In addition, representatives of both the Democratic and Republican parties in Los Angeles said there is little they can do register kids inside the schools, because districts are hesitant to let one party on campus without the other.
In some cases, non-profit groups step in to register students. At Fairfax High School, Youth Vote came to a recent day of senior testing and registered a number of students.
Minar Mustafiz, an 18-year-old senior, registered at the Youth Vote event.
“I think voting is a duty to my country,” he said. “The voting age used to be older, and people were being drafted into the army, and they said if they were old enough to die for their country, the should be old enough to vote. So in that respect, I think it’s my job to pick the right people to go into office. I have some choices now.”
In other cases, however, the onus of educating high school students about their voting rights, and registering them to vote, often falls to the students themselves.
Naomi Hecht, a junior at Hamilton High School, is president of the California High School Young Democrats. She said the Young Democrats at Hamilton High are planning a voter registration drive before the end of the year, to try to register as many people as possible before they leave for the summer.
“We especially want to get all the seniors, so that before they leave they can at least know that they’re registered,” Hecht said.
Yneri said the Social Justice small learning group is preparing to set up another voter registration booth within the next several weeks. Yet, despite helping register “a bunch of people” at school – he’s not sure exactly how many – Yneri himself is not registered to vote, nor is he entirely sure if he’s allowed to register yet, since he’s only 17.
In 2008, on the heels of the presidential election that saw record turnout among young voters around the country, a new California State Assembly bill was passed allowing 17-year-olds to “pre-register” to vote, with the registrations automatically taking effect when they turn 18. The bill, however, does not go into effect until July. Until then, 17-year-olds can register only if they will be 18 at the time of the next election. But even among the most civically-engaged high school students, confusion remains about when and how they can register.
Young people remain one of the most underrepresented demographics at the polls. In Los Angeles County, only 413,000 of the 4,250,274 registered voters are between the ages of 18 and 24.
Susan von Manske, the lead teacher for the Social Justice program at Hollywood High, said it is especially important to register students before they leave school.
“We’re hoping to catch all kids who will be eighteen,” she said. “There seems to be a lot of interest in this election, due to the heating up of the immigration issue. It’s a really good opportunity to register them before they go out into the world. Believe it or not, a lot of kids are really nervous about voting. They’ve never voted before, and maybe their parents don’t vote, and they don’t have a lot of people around them who vote. For some of them, this is the best chance they have to learn about the process.”
Every election cycle, Von Manske holds mock elections with her classes. No school- or district-wide policy, however, ensures that other teachers do the same with their classes.
Fairfax High School Principal, Ed Zubiate, said he wasn’t aware of any requirement to educate students about their voting rights.
“There is no systemic, school-wide effort to register students,” Zubiate said. “The only efforts that might happen would be through social studies classes.”
Zubiate said he hoped to be able to teach Fairfax High students more life skills, like civic engagement, in the coming years.
“I think it’s really important, but it’s such a deep discussion about what the purpose of high schools is,” he said. “The new Obama legislation says our job is to get kids ready not only for college but also for careers. That means teaching them life skills, like teamwork, and their responsibilities as citizens. Right now, our curriculum is so dominated by state academic standards, other types of standards haven’t really been put in place yet. We don’t want to throw away those academic standards, but we want to weave in those life skills. That’s what will really benefit these kids.”
This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.