California Counts

A collaboration between Capital Public Radio, KQED, KPCC and KPBS to cover the 2016 elections in California.

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Drawn To Political Outsiders, California's Young Voters Face A Test Of Commitment

Dan Tuffs / KPCC

College of the Canyons students Devon Miller, Mohammad Qayum and Jose Martinez are all members of the community college's political science club. Miller says although he supports Sen. Bernie Sanders for president, he doesn't care who his peers vote for as long as they vote.

Dan Tuffs / KPCC

Mary Plummer | KPCC

With the presidential primary just six weeks away, eyes are turning to California and the hundreds of Democratic and Republican delegates statewide who are up for grabs. 

One demographic could be especially powerful: young people. Activated by the populist campaigns of Democrat Bernie Sanders and Republican Donald Trump, their voter registrations across the state have surged. But young voters are notorious for not showing up at the polls, and that's cause for caution when predicting their influence.

Young voters' participation this year has varied from state to state, but they have generally turned out in larger numbers in primaries and caucuses.

"We have seen Sen. Sanders' campaign receive a great deal of support from young people. That support has differed by state to some extent and among youth by race and ethnicity. At the same time, we've also seen records broken in every state, except New York on the Republican side," said Abby Kiesa, youth coordinator and researcher at the Center for Information & Research for Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University (CIRCLE).

In New York's primary last week, turnout among voters in the 18 to 29-year-old age group increased to 14 percent from 12 percent in 2008, based on estimates from CIRCLE.

Young voter turnout in Wisconsin on April 5 jumped to an estimated 33 percent from 25 percent in 2008, according the center. 

So how might California's young voter turnout play out come June 7? Experts say it's anyone's guess, but there's little question that many millennials are discontented and want to see change.

Recruiting on campus

It’s mid-day in Santa Clarita at College of the Canyons, a community college located about 40 minutes north of Los Angeles. Students here are mingling around a voter registration booth set up on a campus sidewalk.

Santa Clarita is one of the few strongholds of conservatism in a state dominated by Democrats. But at College of the Canyons, there is strong support for Bernie Sanders. Student organizers are handing out stickers hoping to encourage others to join their effort.

Twenty-two-year-old Shawnee Badger has channeled her enthusiasm into action. She's has been registering students, calling potential voters on the phone for Sanders, and running as a delegate for her candidate.

Shawnee Badger, 22, supports presidential candidate Bernie Sanders and says she wouldn't be involved in this year's election if it weren't for his campaign. Shawnee Badger, 22, supports presidential candidate Bernie Sanders and says she wouldn't be involved in this year's election if it weren't for his campaign. Dan Tuffs / KPCC

 

She said Sanders inspired her support in part when she watched videos of him online, including one Sanders confrontation with then Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan in 2003. 

The sentiment that is driving students like Badger to Sanders is turning others like 20-year-old Jack Allen toward Donald Trump.

"I do like how he is upfront," Allen said. He also likes the ideas behind Trump’s slogan, "Make America Great Again," which is resonating with voters who believe the country is headed in the wrong direction.  

Allen notes that Trump doesn’t play by political rules. "He’s kind of rash … I think we’re kind of done with that, like polished politician," he said.

Facing debt, looking for jobs

David Andrus, political science department chair and one of Jack Allen’s professors at College of the Canyons, is teaching his students to think critically about this year’s elections.

He said he’s learning a lot from students, too — some of whom are gravitating toward candidates who are political outsiders. He thinks he understands why.

"When you talk to students ... and you realize what awaits them in their life, which is an enormous amount of student debt, fewer benefits waiting for them at a job -- if they're able to get a job, [and] you know, lower pay," he said.

Even though there’s a lot of promise ahead for them, he added, "I think that they’re not certain that the future will hold for them what it has held for many of us in previous generations."

As of the end of February, active registrants 18 to 29-year-olds in California made up 17.5 percent of registered voters in the state, according to an analysis by CIRCLE. They are outnumbered by older voters who tend to vote for more mainstream candidates.

Professor David Andrus, chair of the department of political science at College of the Canyons in Santa Clarita, California, teaches his class to think critically about the elections. Professor David Andrus, chair of the department of political science at College of the Canyons in Santa Clarita, California, teaches his class to think critically about the elections. Dan Tuffs / KPCC

More critically, the state's young voter turnout historically has been low -- just 19 percent in the 2008 presidential primary. California's ethnic mix also plays a part: Latinos, who make up 46 percent of young people in California, and have a median age of about 29 years old, vote in lower numbers than whites. 

"The numbers in recent years in California have been pretty bad," said Eric McGhee, a research fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California. "We're hoping for some improvement this time around ... I wouldn't be at all surprised to see a boost in youth turnout this year -- it's just a question of how much."

So will they vote? KPCC put that question to several students registered to cast ballots.   

"I can guarantee that I will be there June 7," said Nicholas Karaiskos, age 28. "It’s do-or-die for us."

Badger, the Sanders' supporter, said her commitment to vote is "100 percent." Trump backer Allen is close behind at "99.9, ‘cause nothing is ever 100 percent."

But Younus Albojermi, ago 20, wavers: "I am pretty likely to vote, although I have been leaning towards not voting in the primaries." 

The deadline to register to vote is May 23. 

Read more in this series and let us know your thoughts on Twitter using the hashtag #CACounts.