The Student Vote

The Student Vote: Why California Needs Automatic Student Voter Registration

In the 2014 general elections, California experienced a record low voter turnout when less than half of the state’s registered voters cast their ballot. Among these voters, the 18-24 year old population had the lowest turnout for all age groups, making up a meager 3.9% of those who voted. Democracy is not representative of the people when only a fraction participates in the process.

Voter registration continues to be a significant barrier to public participation in California’s democracy. There are an estimated 6.6 million Californian citizens who are eligible to vote but who are shut out of the political process because they are not yet registered. For young people in particular, the process for registering to vote in California can present structural obstacles that inhibit their ability to register and vote at greater levels. Young people, like minority and low-income communities, have higher rates of geographic mobility, which consequently affects how frequently they must update their voter registration information. When a young voter moves or their information changes, their registration records may not be updated at all, effectively keeping them off of the voter rolls.

This year, in an effort to find new ways to systematically introduce young people into the political process, student leaders have partnered with California Assembly members David Chiu (D-San Francisco) and Rob Bonta (D-Oakland) to introduce Assembly Bill 2455, the “Student Voting Act.” This proposed legislation would serve to automatically register to vote any student who enrolls at any of the state’s public higher education systems, making California the first state in the nation to do so.

Under this new legislation, every time an eligible citizen signs up for or renews their enrollment at a University of California, California State University or California Community College campus, they will simultaneously be registered to vote unless they decide to opt out. If an eligible student does not decline to being registered, their information will then be securely transferred to the California Secretary of State who will verify that the student is eligible to vote and then add their information onto the voter rolls.

There is no single reason that can fully explain why there is low voter participation among young people, however, we believe that modernizing and reimagining the way we register voters can meaningfully reduce some of the existing obstacles that contribute to lower youth turnout. Moreover, by removing unnecessary barriers to voter registration for students, legislators, government agencies, colleges and universities and civic organizations can free-up and redirect the time and financial resources that currently go towards registration efforts, and use them instead for the more crucial purpose of encouraging greater voter turnout and increasing overall civic participation in California. Based on our experiences of conducting voter registration drives on universities campuses, we imagine volunteers can then focus on voter education and outreach to get-out-the-vote.

Today, the debate around voting opportunities is often framed as a battle between electoral integrity and electoral access. Here, we can accomplish both goals by ensuring that the Secretary of State has the most up-to-date voter records from students who want to vote where they currently live and by ensuring those who are eligible to vote are properly registered. The State has already allowed other public agencies to register voters (i.e. Department of Motor Vehicles, public benefit agencies). It is logical to extend this practice to another public entity: California’s public colleges and universities.

While voting rights are on the defense in many states with restrictive voting laws, such as cutbacks on early voting periods and the elimination of same-day registration, California continues to lead in modernizing strategies for voter engagement and removing obstacles to the ballot. When we asked civil rights leaders from the 60’s what they believed to be among the most pressing issues facing the next generation, they unequivocally responded, ‘voting rights’. It was as big an issue then as it is now.

As students of both law and public policy, we welcomed the opportunity to analyze and suggest ways of “what could be.” We submitted a proposal to Assembly member Chiu in “There Ought to Be a Law” contest and presented empirical data on the youth vote, conducted a political and administrative feasibility analysis and applied our legal understanding of precedents. In the next few months we’ll don our grassroots-organizer-hats as we travel the state to speak with civic non-profit organizations and student groups to gather feedback and earn their support. Introducing an automatic student voter website registration program through the UC, CSU and California Community College systems is another way through which California can demonstrate its ongoing commitment to expanding voter participation and creating a democracy that is more inclusive of the voices of young people.

GSS post

Cindy Dinh is in a joint degree program and is graduating in May 2016 with a JD and Master in Public Administration from UC Berkeley School of Law and Harvard Kennedy School of Government. She was selected as a 2010 Public Policy and International Affairs law fellow at UC Berkeley and as a 2010 Harry S. Truman Scholar from Houston, Texas. Follow Cindy: LinkedIn

Paul Monge was born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area by immigrant parents from El Salvador. He holds a Bachelors from UC Santa Barbara, a Masters in Public Policy from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, and is currently pursuing a JD at the UC Berkeley School of Law. Follow Paul: LinkedIn |Twitter: @paulmonge_SF

Cindy and Paul recently received the UC Berkeley Chancellor’s Public Service award for Graduate Students in Civic Engagement for their work.