Bill Holds Schools Accountable on Voter Education

By Lizeth Cazares
Published August 25th 2007 in New America Media
Editor's Note: Twenty-six percent of Californians 18 to 29 years old voted in the 2006 midterm elections, but Latinos have lower voting turnouts than whites. State Assemblyman Joe Coto is trying to change that.

SACRAMENTO -- Melissa Diaz is one of the few young Latinos she knows who plans to vote. Many of her friends didn’t care enough to register. But Melissa, a sophomore at University of California, Davis who just turned 18 last September, says she is “extremely excited" to participate in the 2008 presidential elections.

She adds: “I think that because -- especially having first generation parents -- our families do not really go out to vote, we got that tendency to not even care.” And, in Diaz’s opinion, this indifference is causing more of her peers to give up on government and their community.

“Many kids today are just plain apathetic to (the) governmental issue because they believe that it does not affect them and that is where the Latino community suffers the most,” she says.

Making sure that California’s youth is getting educated on voting is exactly what State Assemblymember Joe Coto (D-San Jose) is trying to accomplish with Assembly Bill 183.

Currently schools are required to spend two weeks on voter education and provide materials for registering. While that requirement is already in place, there is no way to evaluate its impact. Coto’s bill would ensure that each high school report to their community on their efforts to inform students.

According to statistics by the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE), about 26 percent of Californians 18 to 29 years old voted in the 2006 midterm elections.

Minnie Santillan, senior consultant to the California Latino Legislative Caucus, said this bill has the potential to improve schools’ voter outreach and motivate more students to register.

“There is an obvious lack of involvement of high school students,” Santillan notes. “This can be used as a tool to initiate more voting.”

By reporting efforts, the community can ensure that all schools are actively and equally motivating their students to vote.

Santillan says voter registration levels are unequal throughout the state. While some areas such as Santa Barbara have an 80 percent voter turnout level, others have a level as low as 30 percent. By asking schools to evaluate and publish their efforts, more people will become aware of the need to vote no matter where they live.

She also said this bill will help schools increase their effort and motivate students who are first generation immigrants, or groups that have had a historically low voter turnout rate.

“I think given the percentages attending high school, there’s a larger portion that is Latino, and this bill would impact the rate in which they will vote in the future,” she says.

Recent statistics show that during the 2006 midterm elections about 22 percent of young Latinos voted, compared to 29 percent of young Caucasian voters.

She says that by evaluating schools’ efforts and focusing on teaching students about voting, it’s more likely they’ll become engaged voters now and in the future.

“It’s been proven that if you can engage an individual when they’re young, they’re more likely to continue voting when they become adults,” she says. “This is the only way you can get them involved with the process and get the registration levels up.”

Yet, several organizations question the merit of evaluating and publishing schools’ voting efforts.

Erika Hoffman, principal legislative advocate for the California School Boards Association, says her organization disapproves of this bill because there is no clear indication that publishing schools’ efforts will create more voters.

“We are unsure as to what impact posting this information will have in encouraging students to vote,” says Hoffman.

The California Department of Finance is also against this bill because of uncertainties regarding its impact.

But many others feel that informing the community of schools’ efforts and emphasizing the importance of voting outweigh the costs. David Gordon, superintendent for Sacramento City Unified School District, says that he fully supports this bill and any other bill that works to increase civic participation in students.

Gordon says that currently the district is trying to launch major efforts throughout all schools, by informing them and providing materials for voting. If he could, he said he would require seniors to register in order to graduate.

“It would cause people to have to prepare kids,” he says. “And it’s important just to fill out a registration card because it would make kids think about what they were doing.

While his idea is not a viable option now, Gordon thinks this bill would motivate more youth to vote. And, since the Sacramento school district is 68 percent non-white, it will target communities which are the most in need of becoming engaged in voting.

“I think it’s beneficial for any student, because every person needs to participate,” he says. “We need to have civic participation if we want a functional state.”

Ensuring all students know about the importance of civic participation is something both Gordon and 18-year-old Melissa Diaz think will cause students to think and to vote.

“I think that once the youth is truly educated on how the government rules and who has the power, then the youth will begin voting,” Diaz says.