In summary

Campus organizers across California are gearing up for the state’s early primary in March, hoping for a repeat of the 2018 elections, when student voter turnout nationwide more than doubled. They’re trying creative tactics to get their peers registered and to the polls, helped along by two new California laws.

When Savannah Mendoza was a child, her father would take her along to the polling place when he went to vote. Years later, Mendoza is a political science major at Sacramento State. She wants to run for office someday.

But for now, she’s focused on a more immediate challenge: getting her classmates to turn out for the 2020 elections.

“As a young Latina, that’s something that in our communities we don’t see that often,” said Mendoza. “We don’t recognize how powerful our voice and our vote is.”

Mendoza and other campus organizers across California are gearing up for the state’s early primary in March, hoping for a repeat of the 2018 elections, when student voter turnout nationwide more than doubled. They’re trying creative tactics to get their peers registered and to the polls, helped along by two new California laws aimed at encouraging campus civic engagement.

Younger adults have long voted at lower rates than older ones, but a combination of shock over the 2016 elections and strong feelings about issues such as the environment and immigration drove a surge in student voting in 2018 that outpaced the uptick seen among the general population, experts say. Those same factors could come into play again next year, said Nancy Thomas, director of Tufts University’s Institute for Democracy and Higher Education, which reports on college student voting rates in each federal election.

“I don’t think there’s any question that 2020 is going to be another bumper crop year for college and university student voting,” she said.

‘I don’t think there’s any question that 2020 is going to be another bumper crop year for college and university student voting.’

From ‘Vote Goat’ petting zoos to toting popcorn machines to dorms for ‘pop-up’ voter registration drives, many of the campaigns seek to inject some fun into voting. To be successful, they will have to overcome the barriers that can inhibit students from participating in elections.

Many have moved to attend school and will need to re-register if they want to vote at their new address. Mendoza, who serves as civic engagement coordinator for Sacramento State’s student government, says students sometimes brush her off because they’re busy with work and classes, think they don’t know enough about the issues, or simply feel that their vote doesn’t matter.

“They’ve kind of lost hope in our government, because they see what’s happening at higher levels and they feel like they can’t do anything about it,” she said.

At Fresno State, fourth-year D’Aungillique Jackson said that at first, talking to students about registering to vote was “almost like pulling teeth.” Then Jackson, the vice-president of her school’s NAACP chapter, attended a civic engagement training sponsored by the organization. 

youth vote, 2020, voter turnout, election
Savannah Mendoza, a third-year political science major at Sacramento State University, coordinates civic engagement for the campus student government organization. Photo by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters

She learned to start conversations about criminal justice issues that disproportionately affect young people of color, she said, such as gang conspiracy and stand your ground laws.

“Talking to people about things that affect them that way, I was able to increase interest about the election process among black people on campus and in my greater community,” she said.

After hosting dozens of civic engagement events last year, including a voting-themed variety show, Jackson decided the job was too big for students to handle alone. She and other Fresno State students lobbied legislators to pass a new law that requires public college and university campuses to designate a “civic and voter empowerment coordinator” who will run voter education events and social media campaigns. Authored by Assemblywoman Cottie Petrie-Norris, it’s set to take effect January 1.

The law is just one of several ways California is pushing to make student voting easier at a time when reports of campus voter suppression are surfacing nationwide.

“You have to make [voting] convenient, especially for the working student,” said Noel Mora, an outreach worker with the California Secretary of State’s office.

One way to do that is with vote centers — one-stop shops that open between four and 10 days before the election for voters to register and drop off mail-in ballots. Fifteen counties are experimenting with the centers in 2020, including on college campuses.

‘I don’t have all the answers, but I truly believe that getting young people involved is essential to fixing all this craziness.’

As a student, Mora helped bring the first on-campus vote center to Sacramento State in 2018. That fall, students held a Black & Brown Voter Summit with speeches on issues like health care and criminal justice reform, and a performance by local rapper Consci8us. Organizers gave students rides to the polls in golf carts. Thousands turned out, some waiting in line until late in the night. 

Now Mora is helping students around the state bring vote centers to their campuses. A second state law passed this year encourages county registrars to locate them at colleges.

Fresno County Clerk and Registrar of Voters Brandi Orth said the law played a role in her county’s decision to place vote centers at four colleges for 2020, including Fresno State, which had not had a polling place since 2012. Students had urged the county unsuccessfully to host polls there in 2018. (Orth said logistics made it impractical.)

Meanwhile, Jackson is preparing to host a voter training during Fresno State’s Black History Month cookout in February; Mendoza and her team are planning “Propositions in Pajamas” — dorm-room get togethers to talk about California’s ballot measures.

Just like the ubiquitous ‘I Voted’ stickers, these kinds of communal events tap into the inherently social nature of voting, said Thomas. 

“On college campuses, voting is an exercise of community organizing and inclusion,” she said. “It’s about getting people who are not usually reliable or consistent voters to become consistent voters.”

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Ash Conner of the California Public Interest Research Group, a statewide student-run activist organization, brings out Luna the Vote Goat to encourage students on the UC Riverside campus to vote in the 2018 election, Tuesday, November 6, 2018. Photo by Watchara Phomicinda/The Press-Enterprise/SCNG

Sebastian Cazares, 19, said he was inspired to get involved in non-partisan get-out-the-vote campaigns after experiencing the heated political climate that surrounds College of the Canyons, a community college in Santa Clarita where he is student body president.

The college sits in the contested 25th Congressional district, where Democrats are fighting against Republicans and each other to succeed former Rep. Katie Hill, who flipped the district blue before admitting to an affair with a campaign staffer and resigning. The area recently weathered both wildfires and a high school shooting at Cazares’ alma mater.

“I don’t have all the answers, but I truly believe that getting young people involved is essential to fixing all this craziness,” Cazares said. “Our generation has been looked down on for so long because we’re seen as lazy and entitled, but I really feel like our opinions and values matter right now in the discourse of America.”

Cazares is planning a march to the polls on his campus, one of 24 student-led voting outreach projects around the country awarded micro-grants from the advocacy group Rise. The organization, which lobbies for states to increase higher education funding, is also partnering with online voter guide BallotReady to build an app that will allow students to create sample ballots and share them with commentary on social media, said CEO Max Lubin.

“Instead of having this traditional endorsement process that’s top-down, we’re empowering students to choose candidates and policies that they know to be better and share those with their friends,” Lubin said.

California law already requires public colleges to provide a voter registration link in their online campus portal; UCLA has gone further and allows students signing up for classes to auto-fill a registration form with their information, then click a button to send it to the Secretary of State’s office. This spring, the state commission overseeing financial aid started asking each of the 100,000 students who contact its call center each year whether they want to register to vote and if they need help with the process.

Some might see efforts to legislate higher student turnout as partisan politics — Democrats control California’s government, after all, and younger voters tend to vote Democratic.

Petrie-Norris says her bill isn’t about partisanship. “Voting and youth voter turnout is not a red value, it’s not a blue value, it’s a California value,” she said.

A significant increase in younger voters could help progressive Democrats in the primary, said Mark Baldassare, president of the Public Policy Institute of California. It could also make a difference in close contests over congressional seats or ballot measures, he said. And because of California’s changing demographics, a younger electorate would also mean a more ethnically diverse electorate.

Several recent polls show progressive presidential hopeful Sen. Bernie Sanders with a commanding lead among younger adults in California. “Younger voters tend to be more likely to want to see a larger and more expansive role for government,” Baldassare said.

Students voting in the March primary will also have a chance to pass judgment on a ballot proposal that will directly affect their campuses: a $15 billion bond for school maintenance and construction.

While most students in the state may lean left, some of the most successful campus voter drives have been bipartisan — like one at UCLA in 2018, where a coalition including the campus Democratic and Republican clubs more than tripled the voting rate. 

“I don’t feel like keeping young people from the polls is going to benefit the Republican Party,” said Michelle Ohanian, policy director for the Bruin Republicans. “We need to increase voter turnout from this group because we need politicians to also hear our voice.”

The California Dream series is a statewide media collaboration of CalMatters, KPBS, KPCC, KQED and Capital Public Radio with support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the James Irvine Foundation. This story and other higher education coverage are supported by the College Futures Foundation.

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Felicia Mello covers the state's economic divide. Prior to this role, she was editor for CalMatters' College Journalism Network, a collaboration with student journalists across California to cover higher...