In September of 2022, Governor Newsom approved SB 955, permitting California middle and high school students, grades 6th through 12th, one excused absence per year to take part in civic or political events.
Senator Connie Leyva (D-Chino), who authored SB 955, explained the significance of the bill that would allow and encourage students to take part in civic activities such as town halls and candidate forums. Senator Leyva said, “As the future of our state will be largely guided by young people still in school today, it is vital that we get California students more civically involved in government and their community.”
She continued, “SB 955 prioritizes student opportunities for civic learning and engagement and will help them gain a better understanding of how their involvement can help to change and improve the world around them.”
The implementation of a bill that provides students the opportunity to participate in their communities is crucial, especially considering the lack of youth political engagement in recent years. The Public Policy Institute of California reported that individuals 55 years and older make up 34% of California’s adult population while making up 47% of likely voters. On the other hand, adults aged 18 to 34 make up 32% of the population but only constitute 23% of likely voters.
When compared with statistics of California’s overall voter turnout, the participation of younger citizens is shockingly low. In fact, it has been found that more than eight in ten eligible Californians are registered to vote, one of the highest registration rates on record for a primary election year. As of May 2022, 82% of eligible adults in California were registered to vote. These high numbers, however, cannot consistently be observed in voter turnout rates among California youth as well as young citizens across the country.
“There continues to be an eligible amount of Gen Z voters; however, from a proportional standpoint, the older generation, which are closer to Baby Boomers and the Silent Generation, are continuing to outvote Gen Z,” said Clark Atlanta University professor Tammy Greer.
Despite often being thought of as the generation that will change the world, high voter turnout and community engagement from members of Gen Z are not guaranteed. Gen Z continuously utilizes the Internet and various social media platforms to spread the word about pressing issues.
The American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry found that 90% of those aged 13-17 use social media platforms, with many youth instigating discussion surrounding current issues through a single post on Instagram or a brief video on TikTok. In a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, eight in ten Americans answered that social media platforms are very (31%) or somewhat (49%) effective for raising public awareness about political or social issues. Similarly, 77% of those surveyed say that social media platforms are at least somewhat effective for creating sustained social movements.
Evidently, however, a strong online presence, however, does not correlate to involvement in the voting process and direct engagement in community issues. Activism and advocacy through the Internet and social media platforms can be responsible for disincentivizing youth to attend civic or political events.
SB 955 serves as a reminder of the role the education system can play in emphasizing youth voting and civic engagement. Even educating 16 and 17-year-olds on the steps they need to take to pre-register to vote can increase youth engagement in both elections and in their communities.
Greer explained, “There is a lack of civics education among young voters. As Generation Z comes of age as full citizens, we begin to see in the percentage numbers that these young people were not given the foundation and training to participate in their local government.”
Through encouraging political involvement and civic engagement among teens, SB 955 supports high voter turnout among eligible California youth and encourages other states to follow California's initiatives to promote young citizens’ political participation.
California Governor Gavin Newsom highlighted why a bill like SB 955 is more important now than ever before. Newsom commented, “California is putting our values into action by providing meaningful avenues for students to participate in local decision-making…Thanks to these new laws, students across California will now be more empowered to actively participate in decisions that impact their educational outcomes and communities.”