"This is so exciting!" a teenage girl exclaimed in a classroom at Foothill College on Jan. 11, as volunteers from the League of Women Voters of Palo Alto handed out voter-registration forms for her and about 20 other students to fill out.
The high school students, who attend the Middle College program at Foothill, helped the League of Women Voters get closer to an ambitious goal: to register all eligible Palo Alto teenagers by the 2018 midterm elections -- about 1,500 of them.
Jean Lythcott, voter-services co-director for the local chapter, said volunteers have started going into classrooms at local public and private high schools across the city to talk to teens about the importance of registering to vote.
In an interview, Lythcott said she was unsatisfied with the League's youth outreach in past years, which was mostly limited to visiting Palo Alto and Gunn high schools at lunchtime to talk to students. This fall, volunteers instead spoke directly to Paly students in social studies classes and registered about 300 students. They plan to visit Gunn, Kehillah Jewish High School, Palo Alto Preparatory School, School for Independent Learners and local continuation schools in the coming weeks. Lythcott is also reaching out to special-education teachers, the local homeschooling community and adult schools through which high school dropouts might be obtaining their GED.
"I'm really interested in meeting the teenagers that we can sometimes forget in Palo Alto," she said.
At Foothill last week, League volunteers walked two classes of high school seniors and juniors through the ins and outs of voter registration, from choosing a party preference (the League is non-partisan, volunteers emphasized) to how it works to vote by mail when students go to college.
Of-age students registered and those who are 16 and 17 years old pre-registered. A handful of students in each class had already registered on their own -- some at the Department of Motor Vehicles when they got their driver's permit or license and others at local libraries or online.
Lythcott emphasized the importance of civic engagement for this age group.
"You are about to join the largest voting population age group in the United States," Lythcott told the students. "The research is saying that your group, if you act as voters, could shape the nation for the next 35 years in the way that the baby boomers did in the '60s."
Karni Beth, a Palo Alto resident, said she planned to register on her 18th birthday in October but didn't get around to it, so she was excited to do so last week. She said it's particularly important for younger voters to get engaged in politics so they can form their own opinions, separate from their parents'.
Nikki Merkle-Raymond, a 17-year-old Palo Alto resident who follows politics closely, pre-registered during class on Jan. 11. When she's of age, she said, she'll be eager to weigh in on lesser-known issues that often come out in ballot propositions, such as Proposition 60, which would have required the use of condoms in pornographic films.
Merkle-Raymond hopes the registration effort helps her generation, which she described as generally outspoken about social and political issues, follow through on Election Day. Youth turnout was relatively low in the 2016 presidential election: Only half of eligible 18- to 29-year-olds voted, according to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University.
"We're very vocal about our beliefs and our ideas, so it gives the impression that we're definitely going to be pretty active in voting ... but then when the day comes, that doesn't actually happen," Merkle-Raymond said.
Beth, for her part, said she plans to vote in the June election.