By Alexandra Bjerg.
Too many Californians aren’t registered to vote. As a result, California ranks among the bottom in voter registration nationwide. And as I’m sure you know, if you aren’t registered, you can’t vote. Now if voters received a free donut for registering or updating their registration record, the Golden State would probably shoot to the top.
Let’s begin with a question: Did your university ever send you a reminder to register to vote? Well according to a survey of more than 1,000 University of California, California State University, and California Community College students released today by the CALPIRG Education Fund, they probably should have. In fact, 86 percent agreed that universities should send out a campus-wide reminder email to register and vote.
“Colleges and universities in California should see it as an essential part of their educational mission to prepare and encourage students to take an active role in our democracy,” Sonya Soltani, Vice President of Legislative Affairs for California State Student Association, said in a release announcing the launch of a statewide youth voter mobilization campaign.
The overwhelming majority of students who were polled expressed a strong desire for colleges to do more in the way of encouraging voter registration and participation among the student body. That’s not surprising given a quick check of the numbers. In the 2012 presidential election, more than one third of eligible youth between the ages of 18-24 weren’t registered to vote. Among youth that were registered, only half cast ballots.
So, what gives?
“What I’ve seen is a huge number of students fed up with legislators who don’t listen to us or the communities we come from, or students who are just confused about how voting works.” said Caitlin Quinn, External Affairs Vice President for UC Berkeley Associated Students and UCSA Board Member.
Among those that indicated they did not plan on voting in the June primary, a majority of students cited a lack of knowledge about the process and/or the candidates and issues as the reason why.
“For one, I was unaware that elections were going on during that time and two, from my last time voting in 2012 it took so much effort just to find reliable information on what I’m voting for and because of that it is discouraging to vote,” one student said in the survey. “I don’t know how and I don’t really know how to look for more info,” another said.
The lack of sufficient voter information was also reflected in the responses to questions about the voting habits of their peers. When asked why some students choose not to vote, 37 percent of participants said, “we don’t know enough about who and what we are voting for.” 12 percent believed not having enough information on where to vote was to blame.
What specifically can universities be doing to foster and encourage greater youth participation in the political process? “Provide/recommend resources to students that give a non-biased perspective on election ballots, candidates, and platforms so we can make informed decisions and opinions. Gives us the chance to decide where we stand and with whom,” one student suggested.
Another response shows that a lack of credible information isn’t an isolated perception: “I think the University should send out links of reliable information on the politicians and policies we will be voting for. There is too much partisan propaganda and many other facts that become twisted.”
In the report, the CALPIRG Education Fund offers specific actions colleges and universities can take to help more students navigate and engage in the electoral process. No mention of free donuts. These policy recommendations include:
- Use online voter registration tools that facilitate follow-up election reminders, such as CALPIRG’s platform, www.CAstudentvote.org, powered by Rock the Vote.
- Ensure campus policies encourage student governments and student groups to help register their peers to vote.
- Remind students when, where, and how to vote on Election Day.
- Work with county registrars to provide visible, easily accessible polling places on campus.
- Empower/equip students with information about what will appear on the ballot, by partnering with organizations like MapLight and the League of Women Voters to provide students with nonpartisan voter guides or hosting candidate and issue forms.
Regarding the last bullet point, Voter’s Edge is the result of a partnership between the two organizations mentioned (MapLight and the League of Women Voters of California Education Fund, the organization behind SmartVoter.org) that fulfills the exact purpose mentioned. Prior versions of Voter’s Edge will be merged with SmartVoter on October 1st to create the most comprehensive database of non-partisan information available to California voters, covering statewide races and initiatives as well as many local races and measures. This directly addresses student frustrations in the survey about the overly-partisan and untrustworthy nature of information out there.
An informed electorate is paramount to a successful democracy. As Thomas Jefferson once said, “wherever the people are well informed they can be trusted with their own government.” Institutions of higher education prepare students for the workforce by ensuring they have the knowledge and skills to compete in the 21st century economy. They can and should be doing more to prepare students for democracy by arming young people with the knowledge and critical thinking skills to cast an informed ballot.