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Youth Voter Turnout Is Low, But These Central Valley College Students Want That To Change

Laura Tsutsui
Valley Public Radio
From left to right: Rosanai Paniagua, Ofelia Rojas, and Kathy Delacruz Cerros are with the Central Valley Freedom Summer project. They've spent part of their summer tabling outside of local shops like Walmart in Porterville to register new voters.

Summers for college students usually mean part time jobs or summer school. But this year, one group of students have dedicated their time to civic engagement. While some of them are new voters themselves, they’re hoping to get other young adults to make voting a priority.

This summer, 25 students from University of California, Santa Cruz and University of California, Merced have returned to where they grew up in the Central Valley to try to increase voter turnout among young adults. It’s all part of the Central Valley Freedom Summer project. Veronica Terriquez launched the project this year. As a sociology professor at UC Santa Cruz, Terriquez started this because of a trend she noted among students from the Central Valley.

“As a professor, I see that a lot of students from the Central Valley don't go back,” Terriquez says. “So there's brain drain.”

She says that not only were students choosing to settle down away from the Valley, but the young adults who stayed weren’t very engaged in local issues. Terriquez has studied youth organizing and civic engagement, and she says that while most metropolitan areas do a good job of educating young voters, she sees that breakdown in the Central Valley.

“Particularly in Los Angeles and in the Bay Area, where there has been kind of a civic infrastructure to support young people's engagement around a range of issues, these efforts tend to be a bit smaller in the Central Valley where there isn't that civic infrastructure,” says Terriquez.

As part of the Central Valley Freedom Summer, Terriquez paired students with non-profits throughout the valley. These students have spent the summer trying to connect with young voters by hosting conferences about civic engagement, making presentations on local issues, and holding voter registration drives.

They’re trying to get young adults to see what impact their votes could have. Usually, young adult voter turnout is much lower than turnout from older voters. Back in 2016, during California’s primary election, only 18 percent of young adults aged 18 to 25 even turned out to vote. That’s half the amount of total eligible voters in the state who turned out for that year’s primary. Voter turnout also drops overall during midterm election years.

For some of the interns, this is only their second or third election.

Kathy Delacruz Cerros is 21, and a student at UC Santa Cruz. She knows firsthand that it’s easy to ignore voting.

“I didn’t register to vote, truthfully, until I was a sophomore in college.  I had help because my parents never really showed me, I wasn’t very interested either. I was like, ‘oh, whatever, like that doesn’t matter for me’ and, I was there also,” Delacruz Cerros says. “And so now I measure success by making a connection with somebody. A change in mindset is what I’m shooting for.”

Delacruz Cerros is spending her summer in Porterville, which is where she grew up. She says that when she’s registering people to vote, they often ask, who they should vote for.

“And like that kind of drives me cause I’m like, ‘what do you mean?’ It’s kind of funny when we tell them, like, no, like we’re not voting for anybody. We really just want like, to register you to vote and that’s it. And they’re like, ‘oh, I guess yeah, I’ll do that,’” says Delacruz Cerros. “It’s really funny cause all we want to do is give them the skills. Like that’s our main goal.”

The Central Valley Freedom Project is non-partisan, so none of the interns can say what or who they’re voting for anyway.

Jose Orellana is another intern in the southern Central Valley. While he’s participated in elections before, this is his first experience in community organizing.

“There's this saying by like older folks saying that young adults, they don't care. But, yes, and no,” sasy Orellana. “Because first of all you need to be educated on why you should care about those issues, and that's what we're trying to do by putting local conferences all over the Central Valley.”

Credit Laura Tsutsui / Valley Public Radio
Valley Public Radio
Jose Orellana is a student at UC Santa Cruz, but he's from Delano. While he says he spends most summers at school, he was excited to spend this summer back home encouraging civic engagement.

I asked Orellana and Delacruz Cerros if they thought their efforts would really carry over from the summer into the November election, and both are optimistic.

“We've been doing all this work, but hopefully it's gonna turn out,” says Orellana. “You know, in the 2016 election, 100 million eligible voters didn't turn out. So all this work, connecting with youth, telling them, hey, it's so important, it only takes a few minutes. All that constant reminding and organizing, that's usually not, it's not really cared for.”

“Every youth conference we’ve been to we've seen so many excited faces and you can tell that this is new to them. You know, you can tell that these students have never been exposed like when I talk about water and how my whole community ran out of water, people are like ‘oh my god,’” Delacruz Cerros says. “So I hope that everybody takes this to heart and I think that we are making change. We are really planting the seeds.”

It won’t be until after the November election that the project can analyze whether their efforts actually increased voter participation. But, Terriquez says hosting events now means newly registered voters will hopefully be prepared when it’s time to vote in November.

Since UC Santa Cruz doesn’t start school until September, both Orellana and Delacruz Cerros plan to stay in the Valley registering and talking to new and young voters until then.

Laura Tsutsui was a reporter and producer for Valley Public Radio. She joined the station in 2017 as a news intern, and later worked as a production assistant and weekend host. Laura covered local issues ranging from politics to housing, and produced the weekly news program Valley Edition. She left the station in November 2020.