When Lucilla Ortiz of Californians For Justice asked a group of students at Edison High School if they knew Election Day was next week, a majority of hands shot up.
But out of 40-or-so students in the room, fewer than 10 raised their hands for the next question: “How many of you think this election is important?”
Fresno County has one of the highest rates of registration for voters under 25 in California: 14.1 percent of all registered voters are under 25, putting the county above the statewide average of 12 percent and sixth among all 58 counties in California. Of 448,237 registered voters in Fresno County, 63,221 are under 25.
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Add in the next highest age bracket, voters 26-35, and the youth vote is over 240,000 strong, representing more than one-third of all registered voters.
But the rate of return for mail-in ballots for voters under 34 has not kept up with the rates of registration.
In California’s 22nd Congressional District, where Democratic challenger Andrew Janz has been trying to mobilize young people in the effort to oust Republican incumbent Devin Nunes, over 60,000 vote-by-mail ballots have been sent to voters under 34, but only 5,500 had been returned as of Thursday, or about 9 percent, according to Political Data Inc.
In the 21st Congressional District that includes Edison High and where Republican challenger Elizabeth Heng is attempting to unseat Democratic incumbent Jim Costa, about 7 percent of young voters have turned in their ballots.
In comparison, there are 143,171 voters over 65 in Fresno County. In District 22, 46 percent have turned in their ballots.
What happens after voter registration drives?
Ortiz, organizing director of Californians For Justice, said she believes the issue is a lack of information or awareness of what’s on the ballot this year. Her organization, a progressive advocacy group active at a few Fresno-area high schools, presented information about Propositions 5 and 10, both of which have to do with housing.
Ortiz said she was a little nervous to see the lukewarm response from Edison students, many of whom participated in a walkout over gun violence earlier this year, but that she was confident that more information would increase their participation.
“A lot of these propositions would end up affecting young people the most,” Ortiz said.
Californians For Justice has registered 850 young voters statewide, according to spokeswoman Hannah Esqueda.
Another advocacy group, Mi Familia Vota, has run voter registration drives all year, according to spokesman Samuel Molina. He said the group has registered over 5,500 people to vote this election season and is now in the midst of a phone-banking effort to ensure that those who registered actually fill out their ballots and send them in. Mi Familia Vota also held a Chalk the Vote event at Edison High.
Part of those efforts includes fielding questions from first-time voters, many of whom are young people.
“We get all kinds of questions: ‘Do I need a stamp? Where do I sign? Can I still register?’ ” Molina said. “And every county in California has a different ballot, so if you moved recently, you may not know the rules.”
Do young people vote?
Why young people don’t vote is a perennial election question, but the answer varies, according to Fresno State political science professor Lisa Bryant.
For a generation that prioritizes experiences, and then posting about those experiences to social media, it could be that voting by mail is anticlimactic, Bryant said.
“If you’re a first-time voter, or even a second-time voter, you might want to go to the polls and put the ballot in the machine. You may want the sticker,” Bryant said. “Whereas if you’re older and you’ve been voting for years, you might like the convenience of a mail-in ballot.”
States like Texas that have exciting races and early in-person voting tend to have higher numbers of votes cast before the election, Bryant said. California is expanding early in-person voting, she said, but for now, the only place in the county to obtain a ballot, submit it and get an “I Voted” sticker before Election Day is the Fresno County Registrar of Voters on 2221 Kern St. There are 10 other ballot drop-off drive-through locations throughout the county, according to Fresno County Clerk Brandi Orth.
Bryant said she has also noticed that college students who live on campuses don’t request permanent absentee ballots because they may not live at the same address the next year. Some may prefer to avoid physical mail altogether.
“It’s absurd to some that young people don’t know how to go to the post office and send mail, but think of how few things need to be done by mail these days,” Bryant said. “They have Apple Pay and digital payments. Why would we expect them to vote by mail?”
Ideology plays a part, too, Bryant said: Young people are less partisan, making their decisions closer to the election and avoiding the Get Out the Vote drives pushed by the two major parties. Early voting is dominated by older people who have passionate partisan preferences, according to Bryant, and Democrats tend to vote later than Republicans.
And while two local congressional races feature millennial candidates (Janz is 34, Heng is 33), Bryant said she doesn’t think either candidate has connected to the youngest bloc of voters.
“I don’t know that young people view them as representative of their generation,” Bryant said. “There’s not always a lot of excitement about the midterms, but midterms are the policymakers, and local elections often have the most immediate impact.”
Bryant said she expects the final youth turnout to hover around 14 percent – in line with the turnout in 2016 and more than in the June primary.
Young people who are not yet eligible to vote have a role to play, too, according to Daisy Gonzalez, a student intern with Californians for Justice. She encouraged her peers at Edison to post on social media about voting, tagging their friends and celebrities to ask them to vote.
“I don’t know if you guys will actually do this,” Gonzalez said. “But you should.”