Continuing his tour to promote California's High School Voter Education Weeks, California Secretary of State Alex Padilla visited Santa Maria High School on Wednesday to stress the importance of voter registration and civic engagement.

Padilla was joined by Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara, at the morning assembly. 

"When I was in high school, young men were being conscripted to fight in the Army but couldn't vote," Jackson said. "That didn't make a whole lot of sense to me. The people in charge said, 'We're going to send you off to war but we're not going to let you have a decision of whether or not we have a war.'"

In 2013, Jackson introduced Senate Bill 113, which sought to provide 16- to 17-year-olds a way to preregister to vote. After being signed by Gov. Jerry Brown in 2014, the legislation took two years to go into effect. Since then, Padilla estimates more than 20,000 young voters have preregistered to vote and expects more to join their ranks as the state rolls out its online voter preregistration portal.

"Most young people don't know that, if they registered and voted at the same rates as everybody else, they would represent the biggest bloc of voters in the U.S.," he said. "The earlier we can plant that seed of civic responsibility and get them to vote in the first and second election after they turn 18, [then] they're much more likely to be regular voters the rest of their life."

Earlier this week, the Santa Barbara County Elections Office reported that officials had processed 181 voter preregistrations, a sliver of the 20,000 estimated statewide preregistrations. Students like junior Jennifer DeLeon hope that Padilla and Jackson's visit will help promote civic engagement and drive voter preregistration among her peers at school.

"I had never heard of the bill [but] knowing you could preregister gives us a huge advantage, especially at a young age," she said. "People may be discouraged to vote just because they have to go through the registration process."

Junior Jacquelyn Rayas appreciated Jackson's willingness to encourage youth to preregister to vote but also to help promote political consciousness in schools across the Central Coast.

"I was really happy that Sen. Jackson was able to come," she said, adding that she had met Jackson before during a similar visit to the school. "I know most high school students aren't involved with politics or might not know what's going on, but I'm glad she's bringing those issues to our attention and that we have a voice."

According to Rayas, many of her classmates expressed concern earlier this month after the Trump administration announced the end of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which granted two-year stays of deportation for undocumented immigrants who met specific criteria.

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Jackson took time to address the Trump administration's decision to roll back the DACA program by reminding students that, if they don't agree with the political trajectory, they can work to change it with their vote.

"You have a voice; you can tell our president, congressmen and [even] state senators what your feelings are," she said. "If you don't like the way [undocumented] folks are being treated or the fact that they're going to pull back the DACA program, and if you're able to vote, you can tell them you don't like it and you can vote those bums out of office."

Senior Jennifer Hernandez, who completed her voter preregistration in less than five minutes, was impressed at how easy the process was. She called preregistration an effective way to "let students know that [they] can actually make a change."

"I didn't know you could preregister so I was shocked to hear [you could,]" she said, thanking Jackson and Padilla for coming to promote the new initiative. "I think it's a good first step. We shouldn't just advocate in our schools, we have to go into our communities to [make a difference] in local, state and national [politics.]"

Mathew Burciaga covers education in Santa Maria and the surrounding area for Lee Central Coast Newspapers. Follow him on Twitter @math_burciaga