Will California's young voters show up for the next midterm election?

California's decline in turnout for midterm elections comes down to age. Young people vote at slighly higher rates in presidental elections and much lower rates during midterm elections.
California's decline in turnout for midterm elections comes down to age. Young people vote at slighly higher rates in presidental elections and much lower rates during midterm elections.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC

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California's young voters don't show up for midterm elections the way they do for the presidential contests and their voting behavior largely accounts for California's declining turnout in off-year balloting, according to a new study released Monday.

The state's record low turnout in 2014 primary and general midterm elections cast a shadow over solid voter participation during last year's presidential election when registration and turnout both rose. 

Public Policy Institute of California researchers said the state's declining turnout in midterm elections can largely be attributable to young voters' behavior. 

"Young people have been voting at slightly higher rates in presidential elections and at much lower rates in midterms than voters of the same age did two decades ago," according to the report. 

Larson Eernissee, a University of Southern California student, can attest to the high interest among his friends in last year's presidential election. But as for the upcoming midterm election, he doesn't think it will be the same among his peers.

"A lot of them aren't very vocal about the midterm election," Eernissee said.

Many young voters were attracted to the 2016 election by Bernie Sanders' presidential candidacy and his pro-youth message. But midterm elections, particularly at the local level, generally don't generate the same excitement.

"I would definitely say, not surprisingly, that the higher profile election is the election more young people are likely to turn out," said Emily Rusch, executive director of California Public Interest Research Group. CALPRIG runs the New Voter Project that encourages young people to vote. 

The next major midterm takes place in 2018 when, among other races, California's congressional representatives and the new governor will be chosen. Rusch said she thinks the midterm will be competitive and that could inspire more young people to vote.

One of key to making a difference in young voter turnout is ensuring that "candidates who are running are actually reaching out to young people," she said.

Lizette Mata, assistant chief deputy secretary of state, whose office conducts outreach to new voters, said young people need to feel inspired to vote. 

"It really comes down to emotion," she said. "Sometimes it comes down to a passion. Is it something that's hitting home, you know, whether it's a proposition or a candidate that's resonating with my own beliefs?” 

Mata believes the coming midterm election will carry with it more emotion than in other years.

"Politics has become so much of a huge front issue at this moment," she said. "It's being highlighted so much every single day. You know with this new administration at the federal level politics is becoming more interesting because you can't look away, you want to listen…”. 

Rusch said there is a lot at stake for young people.

"Young people have the most to win or lose in elections because they're going to be around for a long time and face the decisions that we're making now about everything from [the] budget to how they spend our tax dollars … their voice matters,” she said.

Another finding of the PPIC report: California’s voter registration rate has been falling compared to other states, "strongly driven by the growing diversity of its population."

Latinos and Asian Americans have become eligible to vote at faster rates than in other states but they register at lower rates than those in other groups, the report states.