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National group reaching out to Arizona's unregistered young voters

Facebook/La Paz County Recorder and Voter Registration

By Howard Fischer
Capitol Media Services

PHOENIX -- Saying they could affect the upcoming election; a national group is reaching out to the three out of four Arizona high schoolers old enough to vote but who haven't bothered to register.

And there are more than enough of them to have the potential to change the outcome of races in 2024 and beyond.

The Civics Center figures that more than 94,000 Arizonans turn 18 each year. But it finds that 70,000 in that current age category are unregistered.

Compare that to the fact that Democrat Katie Hobbs became governor by outpolling Republican Kari Lake in 2022 by 17,116 votes out of nearly 2.6 million ballots cast.

In the race for school's chief, Republican Tom Horne beat Democrat incumbent Kathy Hoffman by 8,957.

And that was a landslide in comparison to Democrat Kris Mayes' 280-vote victory over Republican Abe Hamadeh for attorney general.

It's not just statewide elections. Joe Biden got Arizona's 11 electoral votes in 2020 because he bested Donald Trump by 10,457.

Hobbs, who was secretary of state from 2019 through 2022, said there have been periods where there's a jump in interest by teens in getting signed up. But she said that tends to be linked to some specific event that gets their interest.

"I think people get engaged when they figure out how it affects their lives,'' the governor told Capitol Media Services.

Consider, she said, what happened in 2018 with the founding of March For Our Lives.

That student-driven group was spurred by the number of school shootings.

"They were at the Capitol with name badges on,'' Hobbs recalled.

"They had the dates they were eligible to vote,'' she said. "And they directly connected that with the lack of leadership they saw in our elected officials on gun violence, particularly in high schools.''

But Laura Brill, founder and director of The Civics Center, said she's looking to have high schoolers connected to the political system on an ongoing basis, not just when there's some high-profile issue. And what pushed her into all this, she said, was in 2018 when her own kids were in high school in California.

"What I was seeing was this huge gap in terms of interest and motivation among young people to be involved,'' Brill said. "And there's not a lot of resources helping them plug in and understand what the nature is of voting is in our country -- and how important registration is to that process.''

What was missing, she said, were the programs to provide high schoolers a chance to register where they were.

"We train high school students and also educators in how the students themselves, with administrative support within their schools, can get their peers involved and run voter registration drives,'' Brill said. And in Arizona, she said, her group also has a partnership with Civics Education Beyond Voting, another nonpartisan group, to conduct voter registration drives among young people.

But the real key, she said, is bringing those registration opportunities directly to students.

"It's letting young people know that they can run a voter registration drive in their high schools,'' Brill said. "We provide specific nonpartisan training in how to do that, how to reach out.''

And that, she said, means beyond one's own circle.

"If you're a theater kid, talk to the athletes,'' Brill said. "And then we provide them with materials like stickers and T-shirts and posters and things like this to support running a drive.''

The educators themselves also can be part of that, she said, with training on how to support the students. That means bringing the issue back to what students understand, like mental health challenges facing teens and whether there should be more mental health support.

Current Secretary of State Adrian Fontes agreed that outreach is the answer.
"Students today have an interest in being involved,'' he said. "But we need to meet them where they are so they can see the benefits of the democratic process and get invested in their interest.''

That, said Fontes, does include visiting schools. And he said his office works with groups like Civic Engagement Beyond Voting and the national Kids Voting program.

The idea of outreach is nonpartisan. Republican Ken Bennett who was secretary of state from 2009 through 2014, said that also was part of the efforts of his office.

But Bennett, now a state senator, said it requires more to get teens interested. It means showing them why they should be interested in who is holding office "and how they people they elect actually make decisions that affect their lives.

Bennett said he and Rep. Selina Bliss, who represents the same Prescott-area district in the Legislature, were recently speaking with students in government classes at Bradshaw Mountain High School.

"We asked them the question, 'What's of interest to you?' '' he said. That drew little response.

"But when I said, 'What about if you knew that I could raise or lower the drinking age?' '' Bennett continued. "Oh, my gosh. The hands shot up.''

Ditto, he said, when he pointed out that lawmakers can control the speed limits on state roads.

"So, until a young person -- really, a person of any age -- understands how government officials actually make decisions that affect their lives, they kind of just don't make that connection for some reason until some light bulb turns on and they say, 'Oh, you guys make that decision?' '' Bennett said.

And then there are smaller things.

Bennett said that, as secretary of state, he sent out birthday cards to everyone who turned 18 not only urging them to vote but also giving them the website where they can do that.

One of the people who got one of those a decade ago was Cesar Aguilar. He later went on to become a field director for the Arizona Democratic Party, executive director of the Arizona Students' Association and, finally, in 2022, election to the Arizona House.

Did the birthday card make a difference?

Bennett said Aguilar reminded him of that on taking office. In fact, he still has the card.

The cards are no more.

"We would love to bring back the birthday card program,'' said Fontes spokesman Aaron Thacker. "But currently there is no funding to make that happen.''

On X and Twitter: @azcapmedia

Deadlines to register:
July 1 for the July 30 state primary
Oct. 7 for the Nov. 5 general election

Registration rates for 18-year-olds by Arizona County:

Coconino -- 40.7%
Pima -- 29.5%
Yavapai -- 27.5%
Maricopa -- 25.1%
Santa Cruz -- 24.2%
Pinal -- 23.6%
Cochise -- 23.1%
Graham -- 22.9%
La Paz --22.2%
Yuma -- 21.7%
Navajo -- 21.1%
Mohave -- 19.4%
Apache -- 19.3%
Gila -- 16.4%
Greenlee -- 15.6%

-- Source: The Civics Center using Census Bureau and state voter files

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