California students can help renew our democratic spirit. Here’s how

By Michael Latner, Special to CALmatters

Even with voter turnout in the 2018 midterm elections reaching historic highs, only about half of us made it to the polls. And for the first time in nearly half a century, a congressional election was invalidated due to election fraud.

It is no surprise then that the United States ranks near the bottom of older democracies in electoral integrity.

But there is hope yet. A new voting rights revolution seems to be under way.

Some states, including California, have moved to enhance representation and expand access to the ballot. This includes the adoption of independent redistricting commissions, and automatic voter and same-day registration to maximize voter participation.

Now, a new series of bills could take our state further, with a focus on upgrading our election system to better engage young voters.

  • Assembly Constitutional Amendment 8, a state constitutional amendment introduced by Democratic Assemblyman Evan Low of San Jose would lower the voting age to 17. Twenty-three states and the District of Columbia already allow 17-year-olds to vote in primaries, but ACA8 would better connect teenagers to the political process when it matters most, in general elections.
  • Assembly Bill 59, introduced by Assemblymembers Ash Kalra of San Jose, Kevin Mullin of South San Francisco, Sabrina Cervantes of Riverside and Cottie Petrie-Norris of Laguna Beach would require that all California State University campuses have at least one designated voting center. The bill would also require county election officials to request that voting centers be placed at University of California and California Community College campuses.
  • AB 963, also by Petrie-Norris, would create a Civic and Voter Empowerment Coordinator on all California state campuses, covering around 3.1 million students in total. The coordinator would be responsible for assembling a team of students and faculty to develop a civic and voter action plan to prepare and excite students for the responsibilities of democratic citizenship.

Thomas Jefferson famously wrote that if we are to preserve our republic “we must love it,” and that to inspire such love, or civic virtue, “ought to be the principle business of education.” These bills tap into this timeless wisdom by focusing on our youngest voters and students.

Political science research has shown the effectiveness of exactly such programs, which benefit from the social density of campus life. As highlighted in a recent report from A Band of Voters, “On a good day of [precinct] canvassing, you might talk to 10 people. On a campus during a lunch hour (or two) you can talk to as many students as you can feed.”

I have seen the power of such programs first-hand at my home campus, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Through a combination of in-class voter pledges, voter registration booths, and outreach to student clubs, we registered over 3,000 students last year as part of the California Ballot Bowl competition, which we won.

Empowered with the tools to develop civic virtue, our students will lead the next voting rights revolution, bringing us out of the shadows of our current predicament and closer to the ideal of a more perfect Union.

Our democratic spirit desperately needs to be replenished. These reforms take us in the right direction by doing just that, inspiring a love for democracy. You can do your part by asking your legislator to support ACA8, AB59, and AB963, and by supporting their co-sponsors, including groups such as A Band of Voters, Young Invincibles, and March for Our Lives.


Michael Latner is an associate professor of political science at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, Kendall Voting Rights Fellow for the Union of Concerned Scientists and a member of the Scholars Strategy Network, [email protected]. He wrote this commentary for CALmatters.

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