"How Low Can You Go?" – Tackling the Civic Participation Challenge in California

September 25, 2015

Photo credit: Anita Hart

By Efrain Escobedo

Over the past decade, California has been doing the Limbo when it comes to civic participation. With the exception of the presidential election of 2008, we have continued to see the voter participation bar get lower and lower. A comparison of midterm elections in 2002 and 2014 shows a decline of almost 9 percentage points in voter participation. During the same period, voter registration rates among eligible citizens also remained fairly stagnant.

These declines beg the question, how low can we go? How low can we afford to go before our democracy faces a real crisis? Fortunately, California’s leaders are waking up and realizing that declining participation is a threat to the vitality of our democracy. More importantly, Californians are realizing that the solutions needed are much deeper than convincing individual voters to cast a ballot in the upcoming election; solutions require a systemic change approach.

The California Community Foundation (CCF) recently partnered with the Public Policy Institute of California to convene state officials and civic leaders in Los Angeles to discuss challenges and solutions to increasing civic participation in the state. Discussions with panelists California Chief Justice Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye and California Secretary of State Alex Padilla revealed a number of solutions both in the works and coming in the near future for California and Los Angeles County. These solutions included:

  • Getting more civic leaders involved in spreading the word about the importance of engagement.
  • Rebuilding a robust civics education curriculum in schools and incorporating real-world projects and community service to bring it to life.
  • Driving home the idea that grassroots organizing and every day people can make a difference in their communities.
  • Changing voter registration from an opt-in to opt-out system in California.
  • Expanding in-person early voting and allowing voters to cast their ballot anywhere in the county at vote centers–not a specifically assigned polling place.

These solutions recognize that efforts to increase civic participation must take a systems change approach, from removing barriers in the election process to reinvesting in civic education in our schools. Other efforts around integrated voter engagement are seeking to connect community organizing, local advocacy and voter participation in an effort to create a continuum of participation that ultimately not only yields a victory on a specific issue for the community, but also strengthens our democracy by creating a deeper value and culture of civic participation.

After 100 years of helping to build a stronger Los Angeles, we at CCF have learned that whether we seek to increase access to education or economic mobility, improve health outcomes or foster vibrant cultural diversity through the arts, having a democracy that is inclusive, equitable and responsive to the needs of all people is essential to creating the change we need. It is also critical to ensuring that even the most vulnerable and underserved communities can have a voice.

Record-low voter participation should alarm all of us. The vote is the most direct form of power that we have in our democracy. The consequences of declining voter turnout are clear: lack of representation for the most vulnerable, policies that do not reflect the best interest of all our communities and elected officials with little accountability to the community. If we do not reverse this trend, harmful policies that infringe on the opportunities and rights of the most vulnerable, like young men of color, immigrants and LGBTQ communities, will intensify.

For many, the civic participation problem is simply a pathology of apathy—people don’t think civic participation matters. A recent poll conducted by the Los Angeles Times/USC Dornsife/CCF found that Californians see voting, contacting their elected officials, volunteering with civic organizations and attending community meetings as activities that benefit their communities. The resounding message is that everyone can play a role and has something valuable to contribute to creating a brighter future for our region. This tells us that Californians believe in civic participation! Our challenge, then, is how we help them engage and create a stronger culture of participation within all of our communities, particularly our most vulnerable and often most civically starved.

Watch the September 17 CCF-PPIC event.

Efrain Escobedo is Vice President of Civic Engagement & Public Policy at the California Community Foundation.

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