Pete Peterson on Millennial civic engagement: Know the challenges

October 9, 2014 by Pete Peterson

Pete Peterson at the first Secretary of State debate held earlier this yearCA Fwd offered both candidates for Secretary of State an opportunity to share with our audience how each plans to engage and increase the Millennial vote in California if he is elected. Read Sen. Alex Padilla's thoughts here.

If there's one thing I've learned in almost a decade of working to improve civic participation throughout California, it's that what works to increase engagement for one group or community might not be what works for another. This is particularly true for Millennials, who, for reasons of life cycle and experience with technology, face different civic engagement challenges than other generations.

To address these challenges, one must understand them. My friends at Tufts University's CIRCLE (Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement), do more research on Millennial civic engagement than anyone. Their recent research on why this age group didn’t vote in the 2010 midterm elections is essential to the broader conversation.

Using Census data, the researchers at CIRCLE compared the reasons 18-29 year-old voters gave for not voting in the 2010 cycle with those of 30+-year old voters. The differences are more interesting than the similarities. The older group was four times as likely to cite “illness or disability” as reason for not voting (14.6 percent) than were Millennials (3.6 percent). The older group was also almost twice as likely to say they didn’t vote because they “[did not like] candidates” (10.0 percent) versus Millennials (5.8 percent).

So why didn’t Millennials vote? One reason that jumps out is that they’re “too busy” and have “conflicting work” schedules. There were 33.5 percent of 18-29 year olds who gave that as the reason they didn’t vote, while only 25.2 percent of registered voters 30+ years old did. This was, by far, the biggest challenge for Millennials.

Thankfully, there are improvements we can (and must) make right here in California to address this particular issue:

  1. Better Voting Technology Provides More Voting Options: In the report released earlier this year by the bi-partisan Presidential Commission on Election Administration (convened by President Obama), two central recommendations were that states should be offering early voting options and regionalized voting centers. Both of these reforms demand better technology in the voting booth. Most California counties still use “pen and paper” voting procedures (like “Ink-a-Vote”), which prevent the implementation of regional voting centers and early voting because paper forms cannot be stored securely. California is in many ways THE 21st century state, but — as I wrote earlier this year — it is conducting elections using 20th century processes.
  2. Provide Better Information to Voters Online: Related to putting better technology in the voting booth is using better technology to inform Millennial voters, who depend on the internet for information. Unfortunately, California lags behind almost every other state in using online/handheld platforms to inform voters. From formatting voter information guides for handheld devices to offering “voter lookup tools” that can direct voters to their nearest polling place or (as is the case in some precincts) absentee ballot drop-off location, I’m committed to bringing better designed, more accessible civic information online for Millennials (and all California voters). Some of these tools can be developed by the Secretary of State’s office, but many of them will be developed outside Sacramento by the growing number of civic technology organizations like MapLight, Brigade, and others.
  3. Improve Civics Education: Recent national research by CIRCLE demonstrates that high school students who “who recalled high-quality civic education experiences in school were more likely to vote, to form political opinions, to know campaign issues, and to know general facts about the US political system.” This is why I look forward to working with educators in finding ways to improve civics education in California — particularly at the high school level — to demonstrate through actual case studies that everyone’s vote can make a difference. As I’ve written recently, this can and should be done in a bi-partisan way, and with content that not only focuses on national and state politics, but also local government as well.

The importance of better engaging California’s Millennials cannot be overstated; civic habits that start in our teens and 20s affect how and if we will participate throughout our lives. As I’ve done in my work at Pepperdine , I will continue to look for creative ways in which all Californians can be better involved and informed.

You can watch the CA Fwd co-sponsored debate live from 6:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. here. Tweet your questions and comments to #myvotemySOS.