California Secretary of State visits Merced high school, encourages teens to vote

California Secretary of State Alex Padilla on Monday urged Merced students to register to vote.

Padilla spoke to hundreds of students at Golden Valley High School as part of his High School Voter Education Week initiative. Padilla visits high schools all over the state during the last two weeks of April and September.

Padilla used his life experience -- the son of Mexican immigrants who grew up in the San Fernando Valley -- as an example of how young people doing their civic duty can mean having a say in and advancing the country’s future.

Padilla said his parents weren’t yet U.S. citizens when he grew up, and that voting was never an important topic of conversation at home. He said he wants to change that as he speaks to high school students across the state.

“I think you have to be living under a rock to not know that there is a big election coming up in 2020,” Padilla said in a Sun-Star interview. “And so the more we can do to get people ready - both registered and prepared, informed - to participate in next year’s election, that is the ultimate objective.”

He encouraged 16- and 17-year-old students to take advantage of a unique California initiative that pre-registers them to vote, meaning they will automatically be registered to vote when they turn 18.

Padilla also spoke on the importance of responding to and encouraging others to respond to the upcoming 2020 Census.

One student asked Padilla whether he, as a Democrat, also would be going to high schools in areas that traditionally vote more Republican. Padilla said he would.

“My job as secretary of state is to get as many eligible voters to vote,” he said, regardless of political affiliation.

Other questions included why fine arts funding was being cut, and how students can develop their passion for politics and the civic process.

Padilla said he was cynical of voting as a student. But he later realized, after heading to college, that if he didn’t get involved in the process, he couldn’t complain if he didn’t like something happening.

“If I register and I vote, now I get a voice,” he said, noting students should do the same if they see issues in the way money is allocated in their school district.

After Padilla’s speech, dozens of students crowded booths set up by Padilla’s office, the Merced County Registrar of Voters’ office and 99Rootz, a youth-led organization that focuses on social justice, galvanizes students to vote and holds registration drives.

“(Padilla’s visit) just shows why it’s such an important thing to vote,” said senior Clarisol Lomeli, who registered to vote with her friend.

Having a state-level official come to Merced to encourage students to vote is a unique and important voice in addition to encouragement from parents, teachers and school officials they see daily, Golden Valley High Principal Kevin Swartwood said.

Golden Valley, and other schools in Merced County, generally have higher rates of poverty, homeless youth, foster students and other barriers to success, Swartwood said.

“So the fact that he came here and talked to our students, I felt like they feel like ‘Wow, we are important, and just as important as anybody else when it comes to voting,’” Swartwood said.