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Getting more students to vote

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Voter registration continues to be a significant barrier to public participation in California’s democracy. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)

In the 2014 general election, 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- to 24-year-old population had the lowest turnout of all age groups, making up a meager 3.9 percent of those who voted. Democracy is not representative of the people when only a small fraction participates in the process.

Voter registration continues to be a significant barrier to public participation in California’s democracy. About 6.6 million Californian citizens are eligible to vote but miss out on the political process because they are not registered. For young people in particular, the process for registering to vote can present structural obstacles that inhibit their ability to register and vote at greater levels. Young people experience higher rates of geographic mobility, which affects how frequently they must update their voter registration information. When a young voter moves or his or her information changes, their registration records may not be updated, 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, we submitted a proposal to Assemblymember David Chiu’s “There Ought to be a Law” contest, which was introduced as Assembly Bill 2455, the “Student Voting Act.” We presented empirical data on the youth vote, conducted a political and administrative feasibility analysis and applied our legal understanding of precedents.

Under AB 2455, 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 connected to the Secretary of State’s website to register to vote.

We believe that modernizing the way California registers 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, universities and civic organizations can free-up and redirect the time and financial resources that currently go towards registration efforts, and use them for the more crucial purpose of encouraging greater voter turnout in California. Based on our experiences of conducting voter registration drives on university campuses, we imagine volunteers can then focus on voter education and outreach to get-out-the-vote, applying their limited time and resources on the back-end instead of the front-end of the voting process.

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 1960s 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.

We urge Governor Jerry Brown to sign AB 2455 so that we can streamline student voter registration and increase student participation through the UC, CSU and California Community College systems. California can lead the way for other states to expand student voter participation and create a democracy that is more inclusive of young people.

Paul Monge and Cindy Dinh attended UC Berkeley School of Law.

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