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By Ilyne Castellanos and Charlotte West
Not all college students are as ready to vote as Eliana Gonzales, a first-year student at Cabrillo College in Aptos. She has been signed up to vote since she was 17 when she participated in a voter pre-registration drive at her high school, but she says many of her college peers are less prepared than she is.
Now 18 and approaching her first election, Gonzales has not felt much support from her college in the process. “All students receive emails from the college,” she said, but she hasn’t seen anything related to the election.
That’s unfortunate, she said, because many college students are first-time voters. “A lot of them are not even registered to vote or don’t even know how to do it,” Gonzales said.
A new law was supposed to help California colleges and universities get out the vote on their campuses this year, but COVID-19 has forced political organizers to go virtual. While students are more engaged than in previous elections, they still face barriers to participation, especially at community colleges.
A lot of attention has been paid to low turnout rates among young voters aged 18 to 24, which remains the lowest of any demographic group. But participation has been steadily growing since 2016, and recent studies show that young people are particularly engaged around the 2020 election.
Half of 18- to 24-year-olds said they had tried to convince other youth to vote in the 2020 election, compared to one-third in the 2018 midterms, according to the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning at Tufts University. A quarter registered others to vote, compared to 11 percent in 2018. But the same survey noted that only half of young voters knew whether or not they could register to vote online, and one third didn’t know where to get information about where to get their ballot.
In California, registration of college students is up significantly statewide compared to 2016. According to the Secretary of State, 65,000 California students have registered to vote since mid-August, compared to 21,000 through the entire year of 2016. More than 1,200 students attending the five colleges and universities in Monterey and Santa Cruz counties have registered.
A new law was supposed to help California colleges and universities get out the vote on their campuses this year, but COVID-19 has forced political organizers to go virtual.
Last year, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed AB 923, the Student Civic and Voter Empowerment Act, which gave campuses resources to educate students about civic engagement, inform them about dates and deadlines for voting, and even set up vote centers to allow them to vote in person. The pandemic has upended many of those plans.
The law codified the California Students Vote Project, a public-private partnership with the Secretary of State’s office that was relaunched in August. The project is a collaboration between the California Community College, California State University, University of California, and Association of Independent California Colleges and Universities systems to encourage college students to vote.
Both institutions and student-led groups are adjusting their strategies to get students to the polls. Now that distance learning has kept students from accessing campus resources, both campus and student leaders have had to come up with creative ways to connect to new voters.
“Much of our campus’s previous work to register voters relied on in-person approaches like informational tabling in busy gathering places and residence hall door-to-door outreach conducted by our student government,” said Brian Arao, dean of students at UC Santa Cruz. “Clearly, those approaches are off the table this year. We’ve increased all forms of virtual outreach.”
The campus has sent multiple emails and used social media outreach to provide students with information about how to register to vote and to check their registration status, vote by mail, and where to vote if they are going to do so in person, Arao said.
On the student side, film and literature major Emmanuel Ross Hartway got involved with the campus chapter of California Public Interest Research Group’s New Voters Project, a nonpartisan student organization that aims to boost the student vote through voter registration.
“The biggest difficulty has been reaching new students not only … for petitions and getting them to register to vote, but also just for fundraising,” Hartway said. “The biggest thing that we’ve lost on the shift online is that we can’t do tables, we can’t just be outside canvassing, and petitioning people for things … asking them if they want to register to vote. That’s been a big loss, especially for new students.”
Some new or adjusted strategies to engage new voters have included increased social media presence and “walking in” to Zoom classrooms. Before COVID-19, New Voters Project representatives would get permission to visit classrooms and students about voting during certain classes. Now some professors still let these walk-ins happen during their Zoom lectures.
Relational organizing, where students directly contact their personal networks, is another tactic widely used by the New Voters Project. “The messaging of our campaign is really just that voting is a form of empowerment,” Hartway said. “We see that young people do care.”
UCSC will have one polling place on-campus this year, a decrease from six polling places in previous years, Arao said. People can drop off their mail-in ballots at the Bay Tree Bookstore and the polling site at Merrill College’s Cultural Center will also offer same-day registration.
CSUMB has convened a faculty and staff elections committee tasked with doing outreach to students, both to inform them about voting but also to educate them on related issues such as the census and the future of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals legislation. “Part of their goal is to make this a campus effort, and do whatever we can to make sure that these students know how to register (and) know how to get involved as far as understanding what the issues are,” said Ronnie Higgs, vice president for student affairs and enrollment services.
For CSUMB and other campuses, one of the biggest challenges facing college students who were already registered is that they may have been registered at their campus address, which is where their mail-in ballots would be sent. Only about 400 of the 3,000 students who typically live in the residence halls remain on campus, Higgs said.
He said CSUMB received a lot of inquiries from students who had gone home to see if they were still eligible to vote in Monterey County. The university clarified with the county registrar that students could vote by absentee ballot even if they were temporarily living elsewhere.
“We followed up to make sure that they at least asked for an absentee ballot to be sent to them,” Higgs said.
He added that he has seen more student engagement in 2020 than he did in 2016. “I think they really understand the issues this time,” Higgs said.
"It doesn’t matter whether we live in Monterey County, San Francisco County, across the state, across the country, across the world, civic engagement is part of humans helping others.” Nawied Amin, a graduate student at CSUMB
CSUMB students have also been involved with voter outreach efforts. Nawied Amin, a graduate student in business administration, has been organizing online events to get CSUMB students engaged.
“Earlier this week, we had a political trivia night,” said Amin, who was co-host of the event. “Students were invited from all over campus.” By participating and hosting different events like “Who’s Who? Political Leaders Trivia Night” and “Voting Privilege and Suppression: Past & Present,” students are able to get involved in their school community and learn about different topics and be ready for Nov. 3, he said.
Politically active students like Amin have different organizations to keep them engaged and connected, even while not on campus. Those include the Associated Students, Otter Student Union, and the Otter Cross Cultural Center (OC3).
Amin stressed that voting is not the only way for students to participate in the political process. “What has surprised me, is they are definitely more engaged than ever,” he said. “They’re more aware of issues; economy, education, health care.”
Getting people invested in their communities is one of the key ways to be civically engaged, Amin said. “If you’re volunteering, that’s part of civic engagement,” he said. “It’s part of being a community member because we’re all stakeholders … in the sense of this is our community. It doesn’t matter whether we live in Monterey County, San Francisco County, across the state, across the country, across the world, civic engagement is part of humans helping others.”
CSUMB has a ballot drop-off box at the Community Center on its East Campus, but they were unable to have a voting center on campus. Because its campus is split between Marina and Seaside, CSUMB did not meet the minimum residency requirements to put a polling place on campus, Higgs said.
Both UCSC and CSUMB use data from the National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement to track student voting rates. In the 2016 elections, almost 53 percent of UCSC students voted, up from 48 percent in 2012, according to the study. Higgs said that 63 percent of CSUMB students voted in the 2016 elections and they are aiming for a similar turnout in 2020. Both universities have higher voting rates than the 2016 average of 50 percent.
Students at community colleges say they have had less outreach about the elections from their campuses than their four-year counterparts. Lizette Mata, deputy secretary of state, said that implementation of AB 293 has been slower at community colleges because voter outreach there had previously been less coordinated at the system level than in CSU and UC. Community college campuses didn’t receive state funding until July, she added.
At Monterey Peninsula College, Nathan Magaña has been navigating his new school along with the voting process in a different way than students at UC and CSU campuses. “Unfortunately, the whole community college (system) is one of the reasons why I think our schools don’t have as much outreach as bigger schools,” Magaña said. “They have more resources and more money that they can pump into these things.”
He has received informational emails and links to more information in campus newsletters. “I feel like the resources aren’t always there. But they try their best to … give us the general knowledge,” Magaña said.
Magaña also referenced the culture of community colleges as a reason for a lack of student engagement. “I think the biggest differences between community colleges and … the traditional four years (universities) are, there’s a sense of community. If you’re going to transfer, you expect to leave. So you don’t feel as much loyalty to your school.”
Outreach at community colleges is more complicated because many of the students are nontraditional, Magaña said. With no on-campus housing, with increased part-time and distance learning enrollment, and the fact that many students are parents, time on campus is always limited at community colleges.
Kofi Akinjide, director of Student Equity and Success at Cabrillo College, said his campus organized a voter registration event on Sept. 30. Beyond the immediate focus on the 2020 elections, the college is planning a colloquium on voting rights and another event on elections and media in the spring as part of larger efforts to implement AB 293. “We see that is a part of our responsibility to really help students to be able to examine what’s taking place in the political world, especially during this time when there’s so much polarization,” Akinjide said.
Cabrillo College will not have a vote center on campus for in-person voting on Nov. 3, but it does have a ballot box in the parking lot by the football stadium.
Campus Voting Info
- UCSC will have one polling place on-campus this year. People can drop off their mail-in ballots at the Bay Tree Bookstore and the polling site, with same-day voter registration, will be at Merrill College’s Cultural Center.
- CSUMB has a ballot drop-off box at the Community Center on its East Campus.
- Cabrillo College has a ballot box in the parking lot by the football stadium.
- Students can get involved with the New Voters Project on their campuses at: https://bit.ly/calpirgslugs
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